GRADE: 3 out of 5
There’s so much you can respect about this film because of the man, the icon, Nelson Mandela and though in many aspects, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM tries its best to compile over 40 years of history of a man into under three hours, and its effort to not make Mandela seem like a saint very much appreciated in my book, I just think that this is biopic that means well but probably would not go beyond that. One may consider this film to be a quintessential look at one of history’s more revered figures, but it may have its own long walk before it can get recognized as one of this year’s best.
Starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie. Also starring Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz and Terry Pheto… Singh began communicating with Mandela about making a film based on his life while he was still in prison and acquired the film rights to Mandela’s book at the time of its publication in 1996 and development on the film began immediately when Academy Award® Nominee, writer William Nicholson (LES MISERABLES, GLADIATOR, SHADOWLANDS) signed on. The completion of MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM sees the culmination of Singh’s most ambitious project to date.
In 2009, Morgan Freeman played Nelson Mandela in Invictus. In 2011, Terrence Howard played Nelson Mandela in Winnie Mandela. Now, 2 years after the previous one, Idris Elba gives us his take and it’s an interesting one indeed. Based on the 1994 autobiography of the same name, the journey of how the book came to be was long and full of struggles, just like the journey of how this film came to be as well. It’s a tough task for any filmmaker, I can only imagine, not only because of the epic span of Mandela’s life from his childhood in rural Transkei all the way to elected President of South Africa, but it’s also a touch task because you’re dealing with a man look up to, even generations today still admire him from afar. But this movie is bold in taking a stand to showcase the side of Nelson Mandela that you may not have expected.
It’s an interesting take because it shows younger, fiery Nelson Mandela who made the mistake of spending too much time away, campaigning and protesting with his political party, so much so that he neglected his wife and kids. This biopic is brave enough to show the flawed Mandela, who even had an affair. A lot of people only remember Nelson and Winnie, they may not know anything about the life prior. A man who thought he was doing something for his people when deep down he was doing it for self glory. A man who starts out non-violent, but then finds that maybe violence is the only way he can get his message across and then in his later days finds forgiveness to be the only way. Not until later on that his intentions became genuine. I respect the film’s decision to shoot on location as much as it’s possible. From the look, to the style, to the approach, to the costume design, the film does what it can to reach a level of authenticity. The film understands that the scope is historical epic, much like Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia, and so it needs to feel historically epic.
Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela has that commanding presence, Naomie knows that she’s playing a woman who when her marriage to Nelson was young, was separated from her husband, and then she constantly experienced taunting and harassment from the police, she was even psychologically and physically tortured in prison, Winnie had every reason to hate, to fuel her anger, a woman who was alone for most of her life because her husband was in prison. Naomie can balance the wonderful kind Winnie with the furious Winnie who seeks eye for an eye.
Don’t get me wrong, Idris Elba is a fantastic actor, big fan of his work on TV’s The Wire, and to a certain extent, he captures the spirit and the charm of Nelson Mandela, he's got the charisma down pat, he's got the accent down pat, but I just can’t look past Idris' physical stature. The entire time watching the film, I was thinking this has got to be the buffest looking’ Nelson Mandela ever. I think after 20 plus years in prison, the least Idris could do was to lose his muscle weight to make his character more convincing but he didn’t and I think it’s working against him the entire time.
If this film’s intention is to inspire, I think it will succeed in inspiring audiences, if it’s intention is to tell as much of Nelson Mandel’s story in one movie, then it’s mission accomplished. MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM will end up being a movie that history class teachers will share with their students and it should be so. It’s good to know that there’s a movie that tells about Nelson Mandela from when he was young all the way to his freedom. But after such masterful monumental biopics as Invictus and Lincoln which both focused on just an aspect, or a part or a period in time in that person’s life, biopics like this one, which covers from youth to old age, seem like a formula that could stay in the past.