Last night a friend and I went to see Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. Neither of us have read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, but like most people we knew that he’d been in jail for 27 years for (depending on your point of view) terrorist activities or fighting for justice against a corrupt and unfair government. Somewhere in a cupboard, I have a stash of old vinyl records that includes Free Nelson Mandela by the Special AKA. (That probably gives you a clue as to which view I lean towards.) This song features briefly in the movie, in a clip from the concert held at Wembley stadium in London for Mandela’s 70th birthday. I did think about including that version here, but the quality of that video isn’t great, whereas this one is awesome in every way – so hit play to get you in the mood.
Long Walk To Freedom is worth going to for the music alone. It begins with African tribal music as Mandela goes through his tribe’s initiation ceremony into manhood, includes jazz from the Havana Swingsters, The Manhattan Brothers and others while Mandela is dancing first with the Evelyn Mase, his first wife, and later with Winnie Madikizela, his controversial second wife. It also includes War by Bob Marley, The Revolution Will Not be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron and several tracks of African acapella singing by The Mandela OST Cast, both hauntingly beautiful and uplifting. These songs are frequently the accompaniment to equally beautiful shots of the South African countryside. The final piece of music is Ordinary Love, written for the film by U2. (Reportedly, when Harvey Weinstein asked US if they would write the song, the reply was the fastest ever.)
Long Walk To Freedom tracks Mandela’s life from that initiation ceremony to when he became president of South Africa and is 146 minutes long. This is not a long time to cover someone’s life, so inevitably some sections are glossed over or missed out. To my mind, the most notable omission is how he manages to get from a being a country boy whose family home is a basic hut to a hard-working lawyer who successfully to defends black clients. I would have liked to see something of that.
In these early days, the lawyer Mandela opposes the corrupt system non-violently from within itself, and resists invitations to join the ANC. A brutal attack by the police on one of his friends changes his mind. Under Mandela’s leadership, the ANC organises non-violent protests such as crowding train stations and sitting in whites-only carriages on trains. But as the government forces grow ever more brutal, the ANC steps up its campaign by sabotaging official buildings and power stations.
Eventually of course, Mandela and his comrades are caught and tried. Their lawyer is horrified at the statement Mandela prepares for the court, convinced it will get them all the death penalty. Mandela and his colleagues are prepared to die for their cause. Of course, we know this didn’t happen, but even so I was biting my nails waiting for the judge to deliver his verdict!
Most of us also know that Mandela and the others spent 18 years on Robben Island. Although the guards there were portrayed as harsh and the conditions spartan, neither were anywhere near as bad as I’d imagined they would be. On the other hand, the treatment his wife Winnie experienced, both at the hands of police before being imprisoned and later in jail, were truly horrific. I think the portrayal of Winnie was one of the outstanding features of the film. Although I would not condone some of the things she later sanctioned – such as the “necklace” killings of people suspected of betraying her organisation – I do now understand how she came to be the way she was. In many ways her life was harder than her husband’s. This is acknowledged in the movie.
The way Nelson Mandela develops throughout his life is the other aspect of the movie that I found most interesting. He is not portrayed as a saint by any means, and his treatment of his first wife is far from perfect, with infidelity and arguments. In the early days on Robben Island, a guard taunts him about Winnie, and he reacts with anger. One of his ANC comrades stops him before the things becomes physical, and tells him that if he shows anger he is letting “them” win. By the end of their time in prison, it is of course Mandela who is calmer and more conciliatory than his comrades. One thing that stood out for me was the way he shows interest in the lives of his jailers and so they come to respect him.
|Idris Elba by lukeford.net[CC-BY-SA-2.5 ], via Wikimedia Commons|
I’ve been rooting around the internet reading other reviews and interviews related to Long Walk To Freedom, and have not read one wholly enthusiastic article. Many praise the performances of Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomi Harris as Winnie – and rightly so because both are excellent. Most articles say it’s good but… One even referred to it as a fairly underwhelming film.
Neither my friend nor I were underwhelmed. We both loved it. I have not worked out how to give ratings to the reviews I do on this blog, but if I could I would give Long Walk To Freedom five stars. I would happily go and see it again, because as well as being great entertainment (the 146 minutes flew past) I have a feeling there’s more yet I could learn from it.
I guess I’ll also be buying Nelson Mandela’s autobiography in the near future.