What becomes a legend most? After prolonged incubation, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom offers the biopic’s usual reply: legend itself. Bigger, louder, more expensive legend, brought to bear by the best talents and technologies of the day.
The name Nelson Mandela has long been shorthand for the things Mandela shows him to be: charismatic, driven, uncompromising, long-suffering, righteous. The outpouring of grief that followed Mandela’s death earlier this December, at the age of 95, was a reminder that he is the rare political figure not just beloved but revered throughout the world. His status as a symbol of strength, perseverance, and forgiveness in the face of vast injustice, so potent in his lifetime, will grow only more so in death. All of this presents a terrific problem for filmmakers wishing to represent the man, flatten his life onto the screen. The movies, for the most part, prefer to custom-make their heroes, and demand some gap of history to bring well-known figures to any original kind of life.
When Indian-born South African producer Anant Singh first set out to make Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in the 1980s, he encountered the difficulties and limitations of applying the biopic treatment to a man already presiding over the global imagination. After almost 25 years in development, it fell to director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and writer William Nicholson to push five decades of South African history through the filters and compressions of the form. The result is above all a new vehicle for the Mandela legend — slick and efficient in the way history and its heroes can appear to be but surely are not.
The casting of Idris Elba in the title role, however, is a welcome surprise. As masculine as they come, Elba’s hulking physique replaces the popular image of Mandela the wispy, benevolent grandpa with one of imposing, youthful vigor. A slow-motion prologue depicts the Xhosa ritual that carried Mandela into manhood; what follows is a hasty business. By 1942, Mandela is a lawyer with a higher calling as a lover: he slides a palm up numerous thighs, then marries, cheats, and splits in three neat scenes. When he plucks future wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) from a street corner, Mandela is already involved with the African National Congress, the resistance movement (later a political party) formed to challenge white apartheid rule.
In Mandela the stakes are self-evident — fair enough in a broader sense but little help to the viewer looking for something beyond the black-and-white. When police fire on peaceful protesters, killing 69, Mandela and the ANC wage guerrilla war, and Mandela locks into a stultifying pattern: rousing speeches alternated with montages of either violence or celebration. Now the mother of two daughters, Winnie doesn’t question her husband. “Fight them,” she says. “I hate them so much.” Her radicalization might have been one of Mandela’s finer points, but instead plays out as a series of chaotic arrests and imprisonments, moments Harris manages to make emotionally intelligible despite a thinly drawn script.
Elba, too, inhabits a role that was designed to be worn. Across two and a half hours, despite his poor likeness, crafty makeup, and the camera’s distracting habit, when in doubt, of admiring the spread of his shoulders and broad trunk of his neck, Elba acquires Mandela’s secret look, the inexorable stillness of a man willing to wait history out. In 1963 Mandela was sentenced, along with several fellow ANC members, to life in prison; eventually the government sought the help of the man they had helped turn into a legend.
Perhaps the most sacred part of his story, Mandela’s 27 years in prison — many of them spent in a tiny cell on Robben Island, off the bottom tip of South Africa — are of course the most difficult to encompass. There’s something uneasy about even trying. The attempt reveals Mandela‘s larger problem of scale, and its careless hand with what history it can’t elide. We see South Africa convulse in the 1970s, but the depiction of the black population’s division against itself suffers from a lack of context that expands as the story progresses. Years later, when Mandela defies his ANC comrades by agreeing to negotiate with the country’s leadership on his own, the moment passes without acknowledgement of its significance to the story. The levers of history and of Mandela’s mind appear to pump of their own accord, at random, driving for maximum effect.
“You alone are small; your people are mighty,” a sentiment espoused by Mandela, is belied by his myth, and films like this one. But then we need gods, and Mandela is not without the capacity to move, never more than when Elba infuses a line of would-be rhetoric — “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated” — with the force of truth.