Movie review – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: The art of historical erasure

2013-11-24 14:00

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An essential tale in the tapestry of SA’s history, or a generic rendition of the country’s struggle? You be the judge.

We suspected all along that Mandela: LongWalk to Freedom was going to be a watered-down take on “the man” and the many events and people that shaped him.

But what we got was a vessel so shot through with holes as to render Mandela a one-dimensional messiah, his comrades mere disciples, and a mass movement of South Africans either hapless victims, flag-waving backdrops who burst into song at mass rallies, or marauding perpetrators of violence.

As if picked at random from a Wikipedia version of LongWalk to Freedom – Mandela's autobiography – are snippets of life, cobbled together, enacted by static characters and filtered through lazy and hazy dialogue; left to wander in life, love and struggle across the panoramic beauty of rural Eastern Cape (cue Lion King soundtrack, panning shots of “the world in one country”, and Madiba, as a young Xhosa initiate, dripping African manhood, aka virile snorting steed, as he emerges from the fresh river waters down in Qunu); through the dusty streets of Orlando or Alexandra in his perfectly pressed suits; or to take a moment to fire a few rounds from a Makarov pistol in a generic “military training camp in North Africa”, before returning in the next scene as a fully fledged cadre of Umkhonto weSizwe to blow an apartheid landmark to smithereens – stopping neither for a breath nor a breath of context.

Interspersed at odd moments throughout are archival clips – perhaps an attempt to meld drama and documentary at key moments in the script, but one that only serves to give Bono’s voice another cameo.

More offensive is the neutralising or utter absence of key figures in the life of Mandela, those who shaped his very early politics and helped develop and sustain his leadership of the ANC – the very people who featured throughout his book, yet who the film makers choose to ignore or reduce to casual extras.

We hear the name Walter Sisulu once or twice as Mandela engages with a group of clearly unidentified men in the first hour of the film. Ahmed Kathrada is given a voice (in all of three scenes) and Oliver Tambo has one line in a fleeting scene related to the decision to take up armed struggle.

Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi play the parts of invisible presence, ghosts of the Rivonia Trial and Robben Island, silenced by a script that has them cast as observers of history, witnesses to the savvy and bravery of Madiba.

Events also get short shrift. The history behind the murders at Sharpeville, for example, are absent in the film:?we get a brief scene dated “Sharpeville, 1963”, with the homogenous angry masses on one side of the fence, and on the other a group of maniacal armed cops ready to mow them down before we can say: “Hey, where’s the context? How did we get here?”

And where is Robert Sobukwe? Where is the Pan Africanist Congress breakaway?

Where is the very back?story that propelled the ANC and Mandela into armed struggle in the first place?

Why not a whisper, not a glimpse, not even a passing reference later in the chronology, to Steve Biko, whose presence of mind, body and sociopolitical thought was not entirely lost on Mandela, and who had a profound influence on the activism and self-actualisation of an entire generation of South Africans.

And where are the struggling masses in all this?

Where is the trade union movement that mobilised and led mass campaigns of resistance and economic boycott, which made the country ungovernable and, along with international pressure, made Mandela’s release imminent?

Indeed, Mandela “becomes” not through any influence or engagement with others, but as if out of the fresh air of his Eastern Cape beginnings – and even these are addressed fleetingly.

Tied to this absence is the silencing of the historical production of the idea of nonracialism.

Through the SA Communist Party and the various congresses (in particular the Indian Congress) the liberation movement began to imagine the future nation as one belonging to “all who live in it – black and white”.

Indeed, the idea was one that Madiba had to be convinced of. But if you haven’t read the book, the screen version of LongWalk to Freedom would have you believe that it was Madiba’s good heart that alone articulated a vision of nonracialism.

Communists are nowhere to be found because, frankly, neither is the ANC, nor the ANC Youth League that radicalised congress.

If the film hasn’t achieved artistic greatness, it certainly can be lauded for the art of historicalerasure.

It is almost a quarter century since Njabulo Ndebele made a call for a “rediscovery of the ordinary” and it seems in the time it took to make this film, the producers have held on tight to the easier expression of spectacle.

Missing is the essence of history.

The director admits that cramming LongWalk to Freedom into two hours of screen time was a big ask, but to gloss over a people’s history to make it seemingly one man’s alone is another mark against a Hollywood rendering that perpetuates all that is wrong about the iconisation of Mandela and the continued neutralising of ordinary mass action and struggles for justice.

»?This is an edited version of a review that first appeared on Africa is a Country

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