Long Walk movie: The gloss of history

2013-12-09 10:00

Long Walk to Freedom is an inspirational film, but it’s not without its problems.

For context, a brief review of previous film efforts on Mandela is in order.

Long Walk completes the circle that is the contemporary Mandela film narrative.

To date there exist two made-­for-­TV movies.

They are Mandela (1987) an HBO drama starring Danny Glover as Mandela and Alfre Woodard as Winnie Mandela.

The other is Mandela and De Klerk (1997), starring Sidney Poitier as Mandela and Michael Caine as De Klerk.

The latter focuses on the transition to democracy and the roles of the two statesmen.

The former, made during Mandela’s 25th year in prison, is an examination of the political praxis of Mandela and the ANC.

Theatrical feature films Invictus and Goodbye Bafana, starring Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert, respectively, are strewn with good intentions and narrative failure.

One critic observed correctly they are cinematic vehicles that are reverential and mostly forgettable.

All films have a perspective and a point of view.

Since they have to be observed within specific time frames they have to contend with the tyranny of time.

The director has to make artistic choices.

In LongWalk, director Justin Chadwick’s narrative attack is swift.

He establishes the narrative telegraphically: A sweeping wide shot of the rolling hills of Qunu and its environs; Mandela’s initiation; the debonair lawyer strutting the streets of Joburg like a champion pugilist; Mandela the fitness fanatic shadow boxing on a rooftop; the playboy man about town picking up women at jazz clubs; Mandela the rising star in the movement and key participant in the ANC’s campaign against unjust laws; and the unfaithful husband married to Evelyn (Terry Pheto), a Christian fundamentalist who abhors his increasing political activity.

Idris Elba is a great actor of amazing range. His performance is an amazing effort that enters the inner life of Mandela.

Naomie Harris offers perhaps the best performance in the film.

Aside from her immense talent, her story arc in all its manifestations is the most complete.

One wishes more screen time was available to Terry Pheto and Tony Kgoroge, who make the best of what they are offered.

There are moments in LongWalk where the visual language is at its most eloquent – powerfully driving the narrative with limited dialogue.

Scenes of Winnie in solitary confinement in tones reminiscent of the Baroque painter Caravaggio visually enforce the horror that is solitary confinement.

Other scenes where the visual language is at its most effective are of Elba in film noir textures and the swagger of a champion to establish Mandela as a man with a mission.

But the film also stumbles visually.

The initial scenes in Qunu – white ochre-painted boys going through initiation; Elba and Harris in traditional Xhosa dress; the burning initiation hut and the rolling hills of the area, are beautiful, Disneyesque.

But they are devoid of the poetry of good visual language. They are akin to ethnographic images of the exotic native.

Chadwick explores the detail of the relationship between Winnie Madikizela and Nelson Mandela.

The story arc is complete from beginning to end.

The courting period, the romantic picnics in the rustic Highveld and the wonderful traditional wedding.

These are signposts, on the surface at least, of a great marriage in the making.

Then the politics of national liberation kick in and the seeds of a disintegrating relationship are laid.

Mandela spends more time fighting apartheid than attending to his family; he is sentenced to a life term on Robben Island; and Winnie is constantly separated from the children through incessant periods in detention.

This level of detail is unfortunately absent in the other narratives.

Mandela’s political life is epic in scale.

His political life spans over five decades – each with specific challenges and major players.

Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson, in choosing to touch all bases rather than focus on a specific period, enter narrative territory fraught with danger.

In Lincoln, a recent biopic, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focus on the last 10 years of Lincoln’ life.

Through this creative choice, Lincoln achieves narrative depth and focus, which unfortunately LongWalk lacks.

A cursory overview of the 1950s reveals the following developments: The ANC Youth League is formed by Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, William F Nkomo and Mandela.

Radical in orientation, the league was at odds with the non-­confrontational leadership of ANC president AB Xuma.

Other major players of the period were the communists JB Marks and Moses Kotane, championing working class interests while simultaneously supporting the national liberation cause. This narrative is absent.

Annoyingly, Chadwick casually glances at one of the key political periods in the shaping of Mandela – the struggle against forced removal of Africans from Sophiatown.

His comrades of the period – Robert Resha, Ida Mtwana, Elias Moretsele and PQ Vundla – are erased.

The same act of erasure visits Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and the Indian Congress.

Picky? Maybe. In my view, the creative, broad overview chosen by Chadwick and Nicholson opens the gates to erasure and the revision of history.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film exposes the underbelly of Mandela and his movement’s unpreparedness in meeting the challenges posed by the apartheid state.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the Sharpeville massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 69 demonstrators.

Leaving aside the film denying the Pan Africanist Congress credit for organising the anti-­pass protest, the event demonstrated the ANC was out of step with the increasingly radical African urban proletariat.

The renunciation of peaceful protest in favour of the armed struggle by Mandela and the ANC follows immediately thereafter.

But the ANC was hanging on the coat tails of a radical proletariat.

After his release, Mandela is thrown into the deep end.

The intensity of the warfare between the ANC and the IFP threatens the prospect of an emerging post-­apartheid democracy.

The film ignores the assassination of Chris Hani –­ an event in my view that came close to igniting a racial conflagration of no winners.

Hani’s assassination brought about a new phenomenon – the confluence of interests between the Afrikaner ruling class, the emerging African bourgeoisie the ANC represented and white capital.

Mandela took to the airwaves, calmed the African population and made South Africa safe for democracy and capital.

What of the liberation narrative? Is a biopic on an iconic figure such as Mandela the way to go? I think so.

Is it the only way? No. Our country must give South African artists the opportunity to tell the liberation story from their perspectives.

»Vundla is the director of soapie Generation

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