Movie review – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: The man in the moment

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.

There’s an iconic moment in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: LongWalk to Freedom when Winnie Mandela leaves the Palace of Justice in Pretoria during the Rivonia Trial and throws her fist into the air and shouts “Amandla!”

She never did this, but in the archives of what Chadwick calls “our expertly documented history”, there is a picture of a black woman leaving the court surrounded by white security police officers that spoke to the story of Winnie Mandela and Chadwick was determined to include it.

Chadwick uses famous tableaus throughout to tell the story – Nelson Mandela sparring atop a building, the terrible scenes of carnage at Sharpeville and the horrors of Boipatong recreated faithfully to capture a time and place, and a man of that time and place.

Though this film has been derided for being one man’s story, one of the unexpected elements of it is that it tells Winnie Mandela’s story so well, albeit succinctly.

Chadwick says: “Mandela stayed pure because he wasn’t in it. Winnie was out there living and breathing the oppression of apartheid every day. Solitary confinement, not knowing where her children were?...”

Children and family are at the heart of this film, so is love and forgiveness. Chadwick says that one of the most poignant things Ahmed Kathrada said during one of their chats was that for 27 years, he didn’t hear a child.

The scene in which Mandela gets his first visit from his daughter is one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments and throughout there is a sense of the terrible personal price paid by Mandela and Winnie, as well as their comrades and extended families.

Mandela receiving the letter telling him of his son’s death is another moment where the ideals of the political collide with the real sacrifices of the personal.

Chadwick, who previously made The First Grader – a superb film about a former Mau Mau warrior who takes the new Kenyan government’s promise of free education to heart – has made another film that plugs into people’s emotions.

Those South Africans determined to find fault with Chadwick’s “way into the man rather than the politician we all know” will do so, but this is a film that all South Africans should see.

It is perhaps a great test of South Africa’s movie-going public that the film opens the same week as the latest offering from the “critic-proof” Leon Schuster.

If Schuster, infamously the only local film maker who makes real money out of the local box office, pips Mandela: LongWalk to Freedom to the number one spot, we should all think long and hard about ourselves as a nation.

British hottie Idris Elba, who was laid low by a nasty asthma attack during the film’s big Joburg launch, looks little like the great man, but he inhabits him.

During the opening scenes, I worried about how he was going to pull it off, but before long he had spliced his performance to the real man’s experience.

Similarly, Naomie Harris, who previously worked with Chadwick on The First Grader, is simply superb as Winnie.

The Oscar rumours have begun and both certainly deserve the buzz, though Chadwick dismissed awards as a reason for doing the film.

“Trinkets and awards are nice?...?but this is an independent story told by South Africans and financed out of South Africa.”

The crew and cast, bar the Mandelas, are South African and it is Anant Singh’s Videovision that will be taking it to the world.

There are some wonderful performances from Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada, Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu, Terry Pheto as Evelyn Mandela, as well as Jamie Bartlett as Mandela’s jailer.

Rob van Vuuren and David Butler have the dubious honour of playing villains of the apartheid architecture – the guy in charge during the massacre in Sharpeville and the warder at Robben Island, respectively.

Though Chadwick is a “bloke from Manchester”, he says he has been embraced by the “open-hearted people of South Africa” while making “the quintessential South African story”.

This is perhaps evidenced by how he captures a sense of South Africa and the people.

The peculiar light of rural Eastern Cape as it spreads across the long golden grass is one example.

The young Nelson Mandela painted in white mud for his initiation, an image echoed later in the film as he cracks limestone rocks on Robben Island and is painted in white again, is another.

Chadwick doesn’t shy away from Mandela’s romantic recklessness as a young man. He also captures the runaway passion of his and Winnie’s love story, and the tragedy and inevitability of their break-up decades later after a lifetime apart.

Sure, this is not a blow-by-blow of the autobiography. It would need to be a miniseries the length of Downton Abbey for that.

What this is, is a way to tell the South African story to the world through the personal prism of our most famous citizen’s life. And for this, it is a triumph.

Chadwick’s hope is that South African audiences will also open their collective heart to this biopic that has at its centre the miracle of South Africa’s transition, told through the personal experiences of the man who lived the story of forgiveness and love that he preached.

»?Mandela: LongWalk to Freedom opens on November 29 publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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