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‘Long Walk’ Review: Why New Mandela Movie is a Must-See

December 24, 2013

By Nathaniel Simons, The Africa Channel


Every season, every year, a few transformative biographical films are released that have the ability to chronicle the complexity of a notable life.  In previous years, we’ve seen Ali starring Will Smith, The Fighter with Christian Bale, and Erin Brockovich with Julia Roberts.

But this year, a striking number of acclaimed biographies have made their way to national theaters.  The bounty includes Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Captain Phillips, and 42. Overwhelmed?  Because there’s more: Rush, Fruitvale Station and Dallas Buyers Club.  But wait – we can’t forget 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street.  So, given such incredible storytelling, where does that leave Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom– the latest in the portfolio of films that have already been made about Nelson Mandela?

Let’s start with the obvious.  Let’s get it all out on the floor.  You’re right: Idris Elba looks absolutely nothing like the late Nelson Mandela – not even a little bit.  But hey, neither do Danny Glover, David Harewood, Dennis Haysbert or Sidney Poitier (all of whom have played Mandela).  Once you get past that, you set yourself up for a cinematic experience helmed by The First Grader director, Justin Chadwick, that relies on a combination of onscreen chemistry, well-scored sequences, and a brilliantly-condensed story.

Playing Mandela is no easy feat – the syncopations and thickness in his accent alone demand intense work.  One could almost call the role Shakespearean.  Additionally, Madiba had an inner strength and resolve that was confident and direct, but not arrogant.  Idris Elba takes on the challenge well, capturing all the essential qualities of the great leader, especially as he ages.  However, at times his performance is so grounded in an attempt to properly capture Mandela’s confidence that he seems one-dimensional.  It may be a directorial choice, but even the moments in which Mandela is meant to be upset or overwhelmed are so understated that his character seems more “glorified leader” than “human being,” denying us a sense of the vulnerability behind the legacy.  It seems as if Mandela is always a step ahead, as though he already knows how the story ends.  And maybe he did.  But was he always that strong?  When did he struggle?  Did he ever lose hope?  Was he ever susceptible to his circumstances?  These questions persist despite seeing Mandela get arrested, spend 27 years in prison, lose his son, and hear that his wife has also been arrested.

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Speaking of Mandela’s wife, the onscreen chemistry between Mandela and Winnie, played by Skyfall’s Naomie Harris, is undeniable.  The first time they meet, Mandela asks, “Do you always accept lifts from strangers?”  And Winnie replies, “You are not a stranger.”  That deep connection at the relationship’s inception is all captured with a series of glances and minimal dialogue.  Harris as Winnie Mandela could very well be one of the most underrated performances of 2013.  She deserves award recognition for bringing such texture and raw emotion to the role, skillfully painting the humanity and complexity of the revered Winnie.  We see the dramatic shift from a young, sweet, innocent girl to a mature woman who is politically conscious and unwavering; never does it seemed forced.  We share her struggle as she endures inhumane conditions in jail, and we feel through and with her as she rallies for support.  

One of the most profound moments of the film is near the end, when Nelson and Winnie both recognize how time has altered their relationship – more so for Nelson, who files for divorce.  Rather than avoiding the controversial topic, the film addresses it head on, acknowledging that there was some infidelity on Winnie’s part.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t detract from the affection we develop for both characters.

So when it comes down to it, why do you need to see this movie?  One reason is that a new generation is growing up with no knowledge of the courage and struggle it took for Mandela to become “Mandela.”  Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson tell that story with passion and great style.  All in all, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does an incredible service by condensing 95 years of process and journey into 139 minutes of truth.  And it’s a definite must-see.


Twitter: @NathanielSimons


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