On Mandela, the Movie Version

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

 Recreating a Major Historical Figure Is Not Easy to Do

Mandela, a biopic on the life of the great South African leader that lately danced and joined the ancestors, a man whose struggle for justice and wise political leadership inspired people around the world, opened in theaters on Christmas Day all across America.  I saw the film yesterday and was impressed with how the filmmaker conceived his task and carried it out.  But I know there will be naysayers, and I will be surprised if some do not condemn the film. I fear it is in the nature of things. Attempting to put the life of a recently departed and much beloved personality on screen as a feature film is a risky business that sometimes rises to the heroic, depending upon the aims and abilities of the filmmaker.

When the subject of the biopic is a political figure with passionate supporters and detractors, whatever the filmmaker does will provoke criticism, some of which can be quite harsh.  Spike Lee was called “a traitor to his race” and a “counter-revolutionary running dog for the capitalists” in response to his movie on the life of Malcolm X, despite the fact that Spike was obviously an admirer of the man.  And for the record I thought it a splendid movie that should have won several Academy Awards.

Despite the risk of being maligned by passionate partisans, enraged because something they thought was critical to the story was neglected by the film maker, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson forged ahead and produced this important film.   In an eventful life that encompasses nearly a century and interacted with so many important personalities, ideas, and political events the first problem for the film makers was how to tell the story, where should the emphasis lie.

Since this is an authorized bio-pic – meaning it is the story Nelson Mandela’s family and the African National Congress has approved – and is based on Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” the basic outline of the story was a given.  The task of the filmmaker was to provide us with a series of vignettes from an epic life that will allow us to peer into the soul and psyche of the man and tell us who he was and what motivated his extraordinary sacrifices in the struggle to elevate his people and free them from the Nazi like rule of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, a regime that the world tolerated for nearly half a century after the destruction of Nazism.

The film makers rightly decided that this story should be told from the perspective of Mandela the man rather than Mandela the political icon.  Hence we see what the struggle cost him on the personal level, with the destruction of his family and denial of any role in the upbringing of his children, because his children were not allowed to see him until they were sixteen and the South African government intercepted and destroyed his letters to them. They also refused to allow him to attend the funeral of his first born son who was killed in a car crash, or that of his beloved mother.

The news he received about the ordeals Winnie was going through during his internment on Robben Island intensified his agony.  No one watching this film whose morality is not deformed by racism could fail to be moved by the myriad pains inflicted on the Mandelas by the South African government; this is why a world-wide movement rose up against it.  However their story is not all gloom and doom, there are moments of beauty and romance too; Idris Elba and Naomi Harris as Winnie and Nelson Mandela do a splendid job of portraying both.

 Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris Nelson and Winnie as Young Lovers

In fact, one could view the movie as a tragic love story, for Winnie and Nelson met as he was a rising young leader in the ANC, and like many South African women she found him irresistible.  Screenwriter Bill Nicholson tells us: “Drafting the screenplay for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I discovered it was his human side that made him a hero to so many – and that his marriage to Winnie was at the heart of the story.”   Yet the movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that Nelson was quite the lady’s man in his youth.  And how could it have been otherwise?  There is an abundant historical record that demonstrates the sexual attractiveness of men who are brilliant public speakers and identified with a great cause; they are aphrodisiac for many women.  It is a universal phenomenon that crosses the boundaries of race, class and nationality.

This fact was pointed out to Henry Ward Beecher – the famous anti-slavery American preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe – by the brilliant 19th century feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull, when she threatened to expose his many affairs with the wives of powerful men in his congregation at Plymouth Church.  Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, et al were all chick magnets.  And like David, Samson and Solomon, three of the greatest men in the Bible, they all crumbled in the face of temptation.  Hence Mandela was a true man of his calling.

But the great importance of this movie to my mind is the portrait it paints of the resolve of the militants in the African National Congress, brave patriots who would not give an inch on their bedrock principles, beginning with their decision not to offer a defense against the charge of “sabotage” of government facilities with the aim of overthrowing the South African government.  And they refused to appeal a sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, a place designed to crack the spirit and destroy one’s soul.

On Robbin Island

Mandela, and ANC comrades from movie

Convicted ANC Leaders Salute the Courtroom Crowd

From the moment we see the horrid conditions under which they would live, and hear the words of the jailer who tells them that he wishes they had been hanged and promises to make their lives so miserable they will wish they had been sentenced to hang, we began to realize what the ANC leadership endured for 27 years!  It also places our government’s complicity in this crime in bold relief.  It is a part of recent American history all US citizens should know about and this film is a good place to start.

Of the many virtues of this film its cinematography, script and superb acting stand out.  The movie utilizes the spectacular landscape of South Africa to maximum advantage in telling his story.  The contrast between the magnificence of the landscape and the decadence of the society is ever present and often magnified, especially when we see the difference between the barren and impoverished areas consigned to black Africans and the plush areas reserved for whites or “Europeans,” especially after the passage of the Group Areas Act which assigned 80% of south Africa’s land to whites, only reducing the African population to landless paupers who had to work the farms and mines owned by whites to survive.

The movie does not shrink from graphically portraying the violence against Africans committed by the apartheid government, such as the “Sharpsville Massacre,” and it also shows how the ANC became proficient in building bombs as a result of training in other African countries.   The dialogue is powerful and the cast of superb actors, led by Idris Alba as Nelson and Naomi Harris as Winnie, bring the characters to life in their full human dimensions.

Nelson and Winnie Meet

Idris-Elba-and-Naomie-Harris-as-Nelson-Mandela

Elba and Harris are Magical

Alba and Harris are actors of rare accomplishment.  The daughter of a Jamaican Mother and a Trinidadian father Ms. Harris was born and raised in London. Her mother was an actress and screenwriter hence Naomi literally grew up in the theater.  Her acting credits are many and varied and she brings the full weight of her training and gifts to bear in her portrayal of Winnie Mandela. Her portrayal of Winnie’s evolution from a sweet and gentle wife, mother and social worker into a hardened revolutionary who could order the assassination of people she believed to be snitches is a tour de force.

Idris Alba is an actor of amazing versatility.  I first saw him in American Gangster, and he was so convincing as a Harlem thug playing beside Denzel Washington that I nearly fell out of my chair when I later saw him interviewed on television and heard him speaking with a distinct British working class accent.  I would have bet my last quid that the boy was Afro-American.  Then I saw him again in the moving Tyler Perry flick “Daddy’s Little Girls” where he played a struggling single father in the hood whose wife had abandoned the family and run off with another man, and he had to deal with a haughty and beautiful female lawyer he chauffeured about that was a royal pain in the ass played by Gabrielle Union, and he was just as convincing in that role.  And now he is playing Mandela splendidly.

Another thorny matter the movie handles superbly is the estrangement of Winnie and Nelson Mandela after he returns from 27 years in prison.  Although she walked with him on his victory march upon release from prison, and they shared a house together for a while, she was involved with another man and was living with Nelson because that’s what the world expected since her claim to fame was as the long suffering wife of Nelson Mandela.  Mister Elba, is splendid in portraying Mandela’s calm dignity when all of his comrades were whispering about his wife’s open affair with another man.

I think that, when all the problems of making this film are considered, this is a splendid film that should be seen by anyone who is interested in the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice by oppressed peoples.  Judging by the reception the film got at its premiere in London, its place as an important film will be assured in the history of cinema.

Last Thursday,” writes Bill Nichols, “I was sitting in the Odeon Leicester Square, London, a row behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as the film I’d written Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom, was heading towards its end. There was some sort of quiet commotion going on, people leaving their seats, scuttling up the aisles. Prince William was handed a phone. Then Kate was crying. As the credits rolled the royal couple were led away. The audience was on its feet, giving a standing ovation. The film’s South African producer, Anant Singh, appeared on stage, with Idris Elba, our Mandela. The applause redoubled. The producer signed for silence and told us about the death of Mandela.”

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Playthell G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

December 27, 2013

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