Long Walk to Freedom
Dir: Justin Chadwick, Cert 12A, 146 min
ROBERT HENDERSON watches the much-hyped Mandela biopic
There are two films currently on release with a very high PC approbation quotient: 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom. The latter is a better film simply as a film, both because it had a male lead who imposes himself on the film and because it possesses something resembling a plot rather than a repetitive series of scenes of brutality and contempt being inflicted by whites on blacks. But being superior to 12 Years a Slave does not make it a good film, let alone a great one, and this Mandela biopic has serious flaws.
There are two ways to watch a biopic: simply as a drama without worrying about its verisimilitude, or to judge it as one would a documentary. This film fails on both counts. As a drama, it is too fragmented and lacking in action to maintain tension. It is also handicapped because it is difficult to view it as simply a drama when the person and events for which they are noted are so recent. Inevitably, it will be seen as a de facto documentary, but it fails to deserve that name because it is profoundly dishonest in its reporting of the facts. More on that later.
The film starts with two considerable dramatic disadvantages: the very long period which it covers – even Mandela’s adulthood in the period covered by the film stretches over more than 50 years – made the film inescapably but unduly episodic and the 27 years he spent in prison was a setting where there is limited scope to show Mandela doing very much. The large cast also works against character development, other than that of Mandela. Even the depiction of Winnie Mandela is distinctly one-dimensional. There is also the problem of representing her as an irresistible beauty. She was not that even when young, and the use of the considerably better looking Naomi Harris to represent her is a form of dishonesty because a good looking actress exhorting violence will have a much less toxic effect than a rather plain woman doing so.
Idris Elba as Mandela gives a strong performance judged simply as a character, but because of the inevitable documentary element his appearance does present problems. Because everyone knows what Mandela looked like and sounded like, it is difficult to shed the image of the real Mandela in the mind’s eye while watching Elba who has no real facial similarity to the young Mandela, a fact made ever more obvious as their looks diverged with Mandela’s ageing in the film. By the time the real Mandela emerged from prison and was before the world’s cameras, his face had developed a curious ‘Chinese’ look and been drained of its robustness. All that was done, and perhaps all that could be done to age Elba, was to give him greying hair.
Then there was a question of physique and vitality. Elba is a powerfully built man and although Mandela was no seven-stone weakling as a young man, he was still substantially shorter (6’0” against Elba’s 6’3”) and much less heavily muscled than Elba. That did not matter so much in the scenes of Mandela’s youth, but it became ever more problematical as Mandela aged. By the time the scenes of Mandela’s release arrived Elba was still a hulking figure, whereas the real Mandela at that age had become a rather physically frail figure.
The final problem of impersonation was that Elba caught Mandela’s voice as we know it from his time after his release quite well, but that did mean he was using the voice of Mandela as an old man throughout the film. (I did try to find a recording of Mandela pre-imprisonment but was unable to do so.)
But the main black mark against the film is that it is wilfully and widely dishonest. This turns it into nothing more than a propaganda vehicle. The serious dishonesty consists of acts of omission. These are:
Mandela’s Marxism and membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) is not mentioned, nor is the heavy influence of Communists within the ANC.
The brutal behaviour of the ANC members to both those, both within and without the party, who fell out of favour with the ANC leadership, either as the result of personal quarrels or because they were judged to be disloyal. Even a pro-ANC account admits there were considerable abuses (see 126.96.36.199 onwards in particular). This behaviour went unremarked.
Winnie Mandela’s glorying in the murder by torture that is ‘necklacing’ is barely given a glance, with Mandela making a single reference to it in a scene with Winnie in which he simply says the necklacing must stop. There is precious little attention given to the practice in general. There is one fleeting scene of someone being chased, caught, having a tyre placed over his head, the tyre being soaked with petrol and set alight. The scene lasts a few seconds. There is no explanation of why the person is being murdered, who the person was and who was doing the killing. It was tokenism of the most extreme sort.
Winnie Mandela also had a nice line in personal intimidation and violence up to and including murder. She ran a bunch of thugs known as the Mandela Football team and was convicted of assault and kidnapping in 1991 after the death of ANC youth activist, Stompie Seipei Moeketsi. The sentence was six years in prison initially but this was reduced to two years suspended on appeal. There was no reference in the film to either Stompie or her conviction. As for the Mandela Football Team, there was a sentence or two in a scene when Mandela said the violence must stop – the same scene as the single reference to necklacing by Mandela – but nothing else. Mandela’s failure to condemn her behaviour for so long was represented as an understandable weakness of the heart rather than any indication of serious fault in Mandela.
The film runs to Mandela’s election to the Presidency in 1994. By that time he had shown a rather worrying fondness for unpleasant dictators such as Fidel Castro and Gaddafi. Such behaviour went unremarked.
Far too little is made of Mandela’s womanising and the failure of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase because of that and his placing of the ANC cause above his family. There are a few rows, and one scene of what might be called domestic violence by Mandela, although that could be interpreted as self-defence, but the overall impression is that somehow the break-up was Mase’s fault, at least in part. Nothing was said about the fact that Mandela left Mase to bring up three young children with precious little if any financial support from Mandela before he went into prison or the ANC after he was imprisoned.
Is this film worth seeing? Certainly not on its own terms, for it is not only dishonest but rather pedestrian. Political animals may wish to see it to prime themselves on the extent that the politically correct myth has overturned reality in the case of Mandela and how readily the mainstream film reviewers have bought into it.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the Quarterly Review film critic