Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom … a flawed film, but is that the point?

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a good, but flawed film built around two excellent central performances. That, however, is not the point. It’s a film that for me threatens to lodge itself in my conciousness alongside two others which take a place in my personal story that outweighs their quality.

The first of these is Cry Freedom. I’m not one of those who rated Richard Attenborough so highly as a director; Cry Freedom is flawed and at times manipulative and unconvincing. I saw it at just the right time, 14 years old, with some dawning awareness of what was happening in apartheid South Africa. With its devastating final scenes and end-credits crawl of victims of the apartheid state, it became my first experience of conscious political anger. I boiled with rage, I cried, I didn’t understand – but also I did understand, I could see that this wasn’t right. So despite the film’s many flaws it is forever for me associated with an awakening to what was going on in the world. Years later I watched the film on television, with a young South African adult. He hadn’t seen it before, banned as it was under the apartheid regime. There it was again, playing a role in my life beyond its qualities as a work of art.

Next was Schindler’s ListA brilliantly acted film, a step too far with that red coat. No matter. I grew up, aware of the life of my Jewish grandmother and her narrow escape from the death camps. As a child I had nightmares of how a modern-day holocaust would play out. In those dreams I hid by strapping myself to the underside of a mattress. Schindler’s List put my childhood fears on-screen; in the staggering clearing of the ghetto sequence a boy dies, bullets piercing the mattress under which he had strapped himself. A flawed film, and I understand why some don’t like it. For me though, not the point.

So to Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. I’ve lived in South Africa for nearly four years, with a sense that for the time being at least, God has called us here. There is an unavoidable way in which this country sits on my heart. It is not mine, but I yearn for it not to waste its own miracle. We find ourselves here in important days. The death of Madiba weighs heavy, but with celebration too; celebration at what has been achieved and how far the country has come. Next year’s election will be the first in which the ‘born-frees’ (those born into a democratic South Africa) can vote. There is much speculation as what this will mean. In truth, no one knows. Next year the country will have been a democracy for 20 years. This is a country emerging from turbulent teenage years into an uncertain adulthood with a myriad of opportunities ahead. What a time to lose your father.

The film is based on Madiba’s own autobiography, and does not try to portray him as perfect. It does not shirk from his difficult domestic life; it explains his support of a violent struggle and allows the viewers the good grace to arrive at an opinion of their own. Long as it is, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it doesn’t feel long and could do with a bit more space in the opening sections to allow the young Madiba more time to breathe. Idris Elba is brilliant in the title role, his accent good enough; his screen presence and transformation through the years astonishing. He is a magnetic actor, capable of expressing the deep complexity and centrifugal power of a leader people want to follow. Naomie Harris gives considerable weight to the difficult role of Winnie; such a controversial figure, here not excused but understood. If this film wins awards, she should probably be the most honoured. It’s a brave, clear-sighted take on a role from which many would shy away. There are flaws. The soundtrack doesn’t fit; the lapses into news footage of the day work on some occasions and not others. There is so much that could be covered in this film that isn’t, one wonders if in reality we need a ten episode mini-series rather than a film on which too much compression is forced. The direction and cinematography are at times too static and unimaginative; more artful framing, more intelligent transitions from scene to scene might have packed more of a punch.

So much for the work of art. Its flaws are obvious. As I watched, stories echoed. Of friends denied a vote for half their lives. Who couldn’t visit a beach. Who couldn’t try on clothes in shops. All until Mandela emerged from prison and spoke forgiveness. I can’t separate the film’s story from those stories. It also leaves me with a challenge. Would I, living under a similar regime, choose the right side? Would I be one of those helping bend the arc of history towards justice? I don’t know. I hope so, but honestly I can’t say. None of us can say what we would have done.

This I know. For years I had nightmares of false imprisonment. A film such as this would have provoked those tortured dreams in me. As I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come just an hour after the film, I listened to a song that has long been a favourite. It speaks of fear gone, of new understanding gained. I remembered that it’s been many years since I was scared of such false imprisonment. The film is flawed indeed, but it has reminded me that I do not fear. What matters now is what I choose.

Would I choose well? I don’t know. This film tells the story of a man who chose well, and who bent the arc of the universe towards justice. I am without excuse.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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