In addition to being a good year for gay rights, perhaps the best year ever in the United States, I would argue that 2013 was a good year for films. One of the best was Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I finally got a chance to watch it, and overall, I was very impressed. The film is close to two and a half hours, but in my view, this length was absolutely necessary. Mandela’s story, even the portion of his life ending with his election as president, is a long one, and a hundred minute movie would have felt rushed, jammed together, and incomplete. Even this film at times suffered from omission. In my tribute blog for Mandela, I told the story of Cecil Williams, the gay, white anti-apartheid theater director from Cornwall who let Mandela pose as his chauffer in order to travel around South Africa mobilizing support for armed rebellion without running afoul of the government’s pernicious pass laws. Williams was, in fact, in the car with Mandela when Mandela was arrested in 1962. Unfortunately, Williams is omitted from the film, and Mandela is depicted as being alone in the car when he was arrested.
Overall, though, Long Walk to Freedom is superb. I had seen Idris Elba, the actor playing the late president and freedom fighter, in a couple of films previously and was already a fan of his acting. After watching this film, I can say that I would be inclined to give Elba an Oscar for this. He plays Mandela brilliantly. Elba was stated to have received the role partly due to his height, but it is tough for me to comment on this, as Nelson Mandela has been described as anywhere from six feet even to a full 6’4”. (Elba is a shade under 6’3”.) To be sure, Elba has quite a bit more muscle mass than the man he is playing, but he still looks a lot like him, especially when portraying Mandela as an old man.
Long Walk to Freedom does not portray Mandela as flawless. The womanizing that helped destroy his first marriage is shown in the film and is not rationalized by the filmmakers. Still, Mandela’s greatness is also shown. He is correctly portrayed as a loving father and grandfather. As 12 Years a Slave showed the brutality of American slavery, Long Walk to Freedom shows the brutality of South African apartheid, as white South Africans treat black South Africans as less than human, and black South Africans caught without papers are beaten to death by the police. For those who have not previously learned about the history of South Africa, it becomes very easy to understand why Mandela and the African National Congress were justified in rebelling violently. Early on, he tells black South Africans that as they are not treated as full citizens of their country, they have no obligation to recognize its laws. In his courtroom scene, which sent chills down my spine, Mandela states that non-violent resistance had failed to end or even significantly lessen the brutality of apartheid and that the South African government was the entity responsible for the outbreak of violence. Later in the film, Mandela points out the absurdity of the government using violence to maintain apartheid while demanding that he renounce violence as a means of ending it. On a related note, the film destroys much of the hagiography manufactured about P.W. Botha by the Right. In the 1980s, as pressure mounted on the United States to impose strong sanctions on South Africa, some conservatives tried to paint a narrative in which South African President P.W. Botha was modernizing South African social policies and would make harsh sanctions unnecessary. As the film shows, however, Botha was willing to make some concessions to blacks, but he had no intentions of giving them equal rights. In a scene toward the end of the film, Botha’s political henchmen try to enlist Mandela as an ally by promising the repeal of legislation such as the pass laws. However, they also state that black South Africans will never receive the same voting rights given to whites. Mandela, of course, rebuffs this offer.
The trauma of prison for both Mandela and his second wife, Winnie, is also deftly portrayed. A reprehensible warden goes out of his way to make Nelson’s life a living Hell and states point blank that he is not financially dependent on his job, as he has plenty of money and could quit at any time. Instead, he stays and derives pleasure from tormenting the wrongfully imprisoned. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Nelson receives a letter from Winnie, only to find that so much of it has been censored that it is barely intelligible. Winnie spends over a year in solitary confinement and emerges bent on bloody vengeance. While it is impossible to condone her acts later in the film, it is also impossible not to sympathize with the horror and pain she experienced.
Still, like 42, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave, this film makes it clear that not all white people believed in racism. White people are shown working with Mandela in the ANC, trying to defend Mandela in court, and participating in international anti-apartheid protests. And viewers are reminded of Mandela’s rejection of all forms of racism in a scene when he warns his grandchildren against meeting racism with racism.
All in all, I really recommend this film. In contrast to The Wolf of Wall Street, which is about three hours long and feels like thirty-three, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is captivating and does not feel like it is dragging on at any point. For anyone who wants to see a great film, wants to learn about history, or both, it’s hard to find a better choice.