Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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This biopic follows the life of idealistic South African lawyer Nelson Mandela from freedom fighting through his long jail sentence through to becoming South Africa’s first black president.

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Justin Chadwick, 2013

When we first meet Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), he’s a smart, flirtatious lawyer disinterested in politics. When his friend is beaten to death by the police, however, he joins up with the African National Congress to fight for rights for black South Africans. As his first marriage dissolves, his activism increases, becoming more extreme and violent in response to the government’s devotion to Apartheid. Soon he meets social worker Winnie Madikizela (Thandie Newton), who supports his fight – even after he’s sent to prison. Prison changes both of them, and while Winnie becomes more involved in the civil war, Mandela’s popularity grows among the people.

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This movie is a mess. It boasts a good pair of central performances from Elba and Newton, who have good chemistry together. With a little more work it might have been the inspiring bio it wanted to be, but as it stands it’s overlong, episodic, and boring. Its focus is much too broad, flicking through Mandela’s life without giving us much insight into him. We’re never given a glimpse behind the curtain to see what really drives him and why, nor any context for what’s going on in the rest of the world as it pertains to him. Characters other than Nelson and Winnie are also given very little depth. The film seems to do best by Winnie, with Newton bringing pathos to her journey from optimistic social worker to hardened freedom fighter. Her motivation and emotions are clear and identifiable, unlike many of Mandela’s. This doesn’t seem to be a fault of Elba’s, who works hard at inhabiting the iconic man, but a problem with the script, which gives us something like a highlights reel of his life without the important moments.

The soundtrack has some great songs on it, but they’re often used in strangely anachronistic ways. In one scene, a great but musically upbeat protest song plays over scenes of racially motivated killings. It’s these kinds of strange decisions that make the movie so emotionally ineffective. It frequently looks beautiful, and there’s some ideas about traditional African culture vs. the white ruling class that could be further explored. Flashbacks to Mandela’s childhood are intriguing and underused (part of the confusing first act, which bounces around in time). The film’s poor quality reflects the cynical exercise of using Nelson Mandela’s death as a money-making opportunity. It was rushed into release as Mandela was dying (his daughters were at a premiere of the movie when he died), which might go some way towards explaining this toothless portrayal of him.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on IMDb

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