Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom sanitizes its history
Directed by Justin Chadwick. Starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. Rated 14A.
Producer Anant Singh has been trying to make this movie for over 16 years, so no inferring anything about timing.
All the same, if you believe in the cosmic giggle, then there’s more than just convenience to the death of Nelson Mandela as this adaptation of his autobiography begins its long walk to Oscar season. Even with the best intentions, a posthumous surge of interest in the man will translate into bigger box office, making Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom look a lot more like the exploitation flick that it really is. If it were Roger Corman’s name above the credits, would this stodgy biopic come off any worse? (At least the car chases would be better.)
Putting aside Idris Elba’s charismatic performance as the giant known by his clan name, Madiba, this is nakedly manipulative filmmaking. Mandela’s all-too-human complexities are reduced to a simple violence versus nonviolence binary by screenwriter William Nicholson, while the deep politics of apartheid are way beyond the film’s grasp. Instead we see Afrikaner fat cats puffing on cigars in the early scenes of Mandela’s pre-revolutionary work as a lawyer, and a parade of cartoon villains after.
Winnie’s radicalization (portrayed by Naomie Harris, also rising above the material) and Nelson’s 27 years in prison are summarized to equally unsatisfying ends. Once the gnomic future statesman emerges from captivity—with no mention made of the compromised presidency that followed—good liberals will be high-fiving themselves over the film’s rousing finale, leaving the theatre with a brand-new song by those noted black South Africans U2 ringing in their ears, and ongoing global apartheid in all its increasingly pitiless manifestations conveniently forgotten.