Known to his friends by his clan name Madiba, Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) was a South African lawyer who joined the ANC (African National Congress) when he saw that the oppressive laws under the Apartheid regime don’t favour the black South African people. If anything, the laws prohibit them from having any form of rights. It’s borderline slavery. He’s forced to abandon his civil rights methods of peace marching by taking up arms against the white-run system. After the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela pays the price when he and his friends are sentenced to life in prison for treason, while his wife, Winnie Mandela (Naomi Harris) is abused by the authorities.
Over the decades in chains and in servitude, many try to break Nelson’s spirit but he remains strong and unbowed as his struggle takes new life through Winnie and his daughter, the young but charismatic Zindzi Mandela (Lindiwe Matshikiza) and subsequently becoming an international cause. It takes on a whole life of its own from America to the UK to even to islands of the West Indies where members their cricket team protested against the regime through methods on the field of play (see Fire In Babylon). Winnie turns from the shiny copper to steel over the years. She hardens, and becomes more ruthless, violent, pragmatic and very uncanny to the Black Rights Activist Malcolm X. Her ruthlessness clashes with Nelson’s peaceful ideologies the nearer his release comes. Nelson longs for a way to win a peaceful victory that will leave South African and its people unharmed despite its dark past.
Change can happen slowly, it can happen quickly or not at all. Like the Deep South in America during the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, White South Africa wanted to keep black people oppressed without rights and didn’t want things to change. You can push change through congress or government. But the most important thing you have to change is people’s minds and no amount of law or legislation can do that. That has to happen on its own. Even after slavery was banned in the Americas and the British Empire, racist ideologies still ensued thus having Jim Crow Laws in the southern states of America until 1965. Change is coming, whether that be sooner or later. You can resist all you want but eventually it will come. South Africa feared what black people would do given the same powers as whites. That fear plagued America and the British Empire (when they freed slaves). Fear gets us all, but it’s worse when it denies our fellow-man basic rights.
South Africa was coveted with an iron curtain that would represent the Apartheid regime, a system of government that would make sure the white minority would stay in power, so it was a dictatorship run by whites to suppress blacks through processes like segregation. Nelson had said that his people had been working for equality and change, but nothing seemed to happen. What few rights they had were slowly being taken away. After so much injustice, suffering and misery, there was a thirst by the ruling elite to use brutal acts of violence to keep the majority in line. Mandela decided that they would fight violence with violence. The state fought back, arresting Mandela and many ANC leaders, so they were sent to the infamous Robben Island Prison as political prisoners. One prison commander told Mandela “It’s a pity they didn’t hang you. I’m going to make sure you wish they had.”
The remainder of Nelson’s life was to be in a state of unfulfilled existence. He lived in a tiny dank cell of squalor and poverty. He would never kiss his wife, or even touch his children again. Each day would be the same, to smash big rocks into smaller ones. On Robben Island, change was locked away in a fortress of solitude, much the same as Nelson himself. But the longer Nelson was on Robben Island, the more he saw change. Mats were replaced with beds and shorts with trousers. At least these political prisoners could walk with some dignity and a degree of pride with the small freedoms that were given. These were victories, small ones, yes, but victories nonetheless.
Outside the seclusion of this god forsaken prison, society was changing and the world with it. Nations began boycotting South African goods and businesses refused to do trade with a country that condones such an abominable way of life. Through this, world leaders were pressuring South Africa to abandon the Apartheid, in the place it hurt most, their pocket. And humanity had joined together throughout the world demanding Mandela be released in the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign. He was behind bars for nearly thirty years. During those years he had no hand in politics through rallies or even speeches, but prison he got older but never lost hope. He struggled under the force of hard labour, chipping big rocks into smaller ones as well as growing tomatoes. Yet he became a catalyst of one of the biggest social changes in South Africa, but also the world.
In the media and press, Nelson Mandela is often portrayed as a saint who could no harm. This movie shows the good side to his character, but also the bad. It shows us that Nelson is just a man, a human being, and human beings are flawed. For example his many girlfriends and his reputation as womanizer. He’s seen as South Africa’s George Washington but he didn’t sell slaves or liberate half a country from rule, he freed all of it. Mandela was a man of the people, hellbent on freedom, justice and sometimes if you want justice, you have to get yourself. Even South Africa’s leaders began to talk to him while in prison, as they saw their country was not what it was. The Mandela movement had some serious legs, legs that the white ruler could not control.
He started out peaceful like Gandhi and Martin Luther King but soon saw that you have to fight for your rights. Any story that depicts leaders like Mandela is intended to motivate or inspire and Long Walk To Freedom follows this tradition. Nelson is a kind man. He treats his guards with civility and deals talks to the political oppositions with friendliness. He doesn’t abandon the idea of violence as a route to change, but he becomes a man of peace and prosperity for all of South Africa. He wants to sever racial tension by uniting black and white so that his country’s people can live together in peace and harmony. When he runs for president he tells the revenge-minded people “There’s only one way forward and that is peace.” He includes members of both colours in his government, making a platform for togetherness and unity.
This is wonderfully crafted picture. It stands at a 2hrs 21mins running time. Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Director Justin Chadwick does it justice. The autobiography is no easy read as I have read it myself. Mandela is a 20th century historical and political period drama set between the 1940s and the 1990s. I think this movie could have been longer, exploring Winnie Madikizela a lot more as the revolutionary and political activist that she was. She was militant and that could have been delved into a lot more, making a more harrowing movie.
I liked how they portrayed the apartheid regime: brutal, cut throat, ruthless and entirely without mercy. That’s how it was and I’m glad they showed all the violence and grit without dumbing it down for mass audiences. With films like this, they can’t afford to pull any punches. The scenes on Robben Island were excellent but I also liked the rapport Nelson had struck up with one guard. It shows that even at the darkest of times, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
I would have been happy with a three-hour biopic exploring more into Winnie as well as the important ANC figure, Oliver Tambo (Tshallo Sputla Chokwe) who plays a big role in Nelson’s life as stated in the book. With great performances from Idris Elba (Beasts Of No Nation) and Naomi Harris (Skyfall) as well as awesome cinematography, this is a grand biography drama. The movie is bountiful with Mandela’s legacy but doesn’t shy from the brutal nature of the apartheid regime nor does it hold back on the violence executed against him, his peers and the African people of all colours. Even now, black people are still in a fight against racial oppression in the United States. From Slavery to Civil Rights to Apartheid and now to the Black Lives Matter movement. We have walked a long walk to freedom and this journey is only just beginning.