AFI Fest: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (★★)

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mandela long walk to freedomI know, I know. I’m shocked too. The last thing I’d ever want to do is slam a film dedicated to the heroic liberator of South Africa, the beyond incredible Nelson Mandela. But unfortunately director Justin Chadwick has created a thoroughly average, lethargically paced, overly repetitive biopic that feels so much longer than its 146 minute running time. Now, mind you, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom isn’t as awful as the irredeemable biopic The Iron Lady, but that’s like saying beat-up old shoes are preferable to walking barefoot on the pavement. What’s even more disappointing is the extraordinary performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, respectively, aren’t enough to undo the film’s jarringly conventional execution.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t just require a trimming — it needs a radical haircut. Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, Chadwick’s film tries to reduce so much of Mandela’s life into a few key moments — which don’t even get their just exploration — and massive crowd gatherings. There is literally an enormous crowd scene every twenty minutes of the film, which in turn lessens their intended emotional impact. Good filmmaking means focusing on singular events to drive home a larger point. Repeating segments over and over again, with the only difference being location and time, gets extremely tedious. I wanted to cheer alongside the thousands of people listening to Winnie or Nelson orate for the sake of freedom, but anyone would get hoarse after what felt like several hours of uproarious cheering.

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Idris Elba continues to be a strong presence in film (Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

What’s even more frustrating about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is that there is no real segway to Nelson and Winnie’s rise to prominence among the South African black community. It isn’t like Gus Van Sant’s masterful Milk where we could see the communal support for gay activist Harvey Milk right from inception. After an opening flashback sequence of Nelson completing his Zulu rite of passage to manhood, the film jumps almost thirty years to Mandela as a privileged lawyer in Johannesburg. Shortly thereafter, Mandela finds common ground with his people after discovering evidence of an innocent black man’s murder at the hands of white law enforcement. Along with his closest allies and friends, Mandela joins the pro-black African National Congress (ANC) party, and pretty soon he’s the symbol of freedom and equality for South African black citizens everywhere. Key information is missing to show us why Mandela became so popular so quickly. Was it because of his dignified status as a lawyer? As a member of the ANC? As a very strong public speaker? The film just kind of touches upon these reasons without being confident enough to confirm them as fact. The same goes for Winnie once Nelson is imprisoned. This is just one of several lazy checkmark gestures Chadwick makes when chronicling Mandela’s long-spanning life.

I would have praised the portrayal of Mandela as a flawed man — womanizer and absent father/husband  — had screenwriter William Nicholson not written him as someone behaving like a person with multiple personality disorder. One minute Mandela is pro-violence, and the next he is as pacifistic as Gandhi. Mandela also had no problem ditching his first wife and child for the “love of his life,” Winnie Mandela, whose romance by the end conveniently evaporates as Mandela takes on the most important position of his career. Chadwick’s biopic strives to make Mandela the most lovable man on the planet, but the script becomes the film’s worst enemy since it nearly decimates Mandela’s likeability factor. Only during the last act of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does the film start to come alive, and Mandela himself begins to show signs of the world hero we know him to be. But it’s all too little, too late by then.

Naomie Harris passionate performance stuns (Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)
Naomie Harris’ passionate performance stuns (Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

As Mandela, Idris Elba nails the national figure’s accent and subtle eccentricities. He totally embodies Mandela’s prudence on all matters concerning the fate of South African natives, whose lives are in ruin thanks to the cruel apartheid laws made by the country’s white rulers. There’s never a moment when you feel like the fate of the South African people is in the wrong hands. An Oscar nomination may not be in the cards for Elba due to the fact that Nicholson’s version of Mandela — especially in the later years — doesn’t give us any semblance of the sprite, enthusiastic man we know from the cover of magazines and television interviews. In badly applied makeup, Elba’s Mandela walks around like a ghoul who seems way too tired to be the president of an entire country. Before you yell “Well he’s been in prison for almost thirty years — wouldn’t you be exhausted too?!” just know that I’m referring to the final years of Mandela’s sentence when he’s under house arrest with his family, and subsequently is chosen as a candidate for South African’s first major election post-apartheid. That Mandela, as defined by history, was one with incredible resolve and vigor. Regrettably, this Mandela is nowhere to be found in Chadwick’s biopic.

Finally, Naomie Harris gives her all as the strong-willed, ferociously determined Winnie Mandela. It’s a shame Winnie is underwritten in the film (some of her defining moments are off-screen) but Harris never ceases to shine in every frame she’s in. One scene in particular has her repeatedly shouting in anger in response to her unfair incarceration, her children seemingly without anyone to look after them. Harris’ performance bursts with well-earned rage and unbridled passion for her cause. Even when the script depicts Winnie as a violent woman on the wrong side of morality, you can’t help but understand her motivations. In a film full of mishaps and disparaging choices, Harris as Winnie Mandela is the only piece of this misguided movie that consistently works.

Elba and Harris have beautiful chemistry in 'Mandela' (Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)
Elba and Harris have beautiful chemistry in ‘Mandela’ (Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

In sum, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is film that lazily goes through the motions, plodding across Mandela’s timeline without making any of his defining moments stick the way they should. Alex Heffes’ score is appropriately sentimental but some of its upbeat compositions, combined with the fractured editing of the film, positions Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom like a music video at times. It’s very odd to witness, and often too cheesy to handle. What should have been a miniseries or a two part film (Long Walk to Freedom: Mandela and Long Walk to Freedom: Winnie, for instance!) is instead a collection of historical plot points that don’t carry the gravitas that a person of Mandela’s global stature deserves. While its heart is in the right place, Justin Chadwick’s problematic and ultimately drab Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom lives up to its title in the most unfortunate of ways.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom had its special screening last night at the AFI Film Festival. The Weinstein Company will begin its limited release of the film on November 29th. Check out the trailer below…