Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Published 28 December 2013  |  

A film based on Nelson Mandela's 1994 biography of the same name brings to life the struggles of a divided South Africa under the apartheid regime, and lays bare the plight of those who were shackled by racial injustice.

Directed by Justin Chadwick, the film stars Idris Elba who, despite his own admission that he shares few physical similarities to Mandela other than his towering height and charming smile, is an uncanny representation of the protagonist. Beside him, Naomi Harris is stunning in her depiction of the controversial Winnie, Mandela's wife of 38 years and fellow political activist.

Of his role as producer of the film, Anant Singh, himself a South African and former anti-apartheid activist, says "It was a huge honour but with it came huge responsibility; telling the story of our freedom.

"It's such a huge responsibility, not only to myself and to Mr Mandela his family, but to every South African".
Opening with a montage of scenes from Mandela's childhood showing his tribal initiation into manhood, Elba's voiceover explains "I only ever wanted to make my family proud".

Running at just under two and a half hours in total, the film goes on to vividly depict the trials of black South Africans under white supremacist rule. Injustice is prevalent, and anger is widespread. Elba enters the political scene as a young Mandela rising to prominence within the African National Congress (ANC) while working as a lawyer. He marries Winnie, before being arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island under accusations of terrorist activity.
It's a story most people will be familiar with, yet Mandela's eventual release from prison and his election as President of South Africa nonetheless still, years later, holds the powerful sense of victory that it deserves. The roar of the crowd welcoming him home is exhilarating; the passion of the South African people and their desire for freedom is palpable through the screen.

What is more complex, however, is the journey and struggle of Winnie Mandela, who married aged just 21, only five years before Mandela was sent to Robben Island in 1964.

Her subsequent rise to political prominence and her endorsement of violent activism is addressed in the film; her tendency towards aggressive retaliation led Mandela to call her "the only victory my oppressors have over me". Winnie and Nelson divorced after she was found to have been unfaithful while he was imprisoned.

As Winnie, Harris presents a strong, independent woman who suffers abhorrently at the hands of the oppressive apartheid regime and yet refuses to allow it to silence her, or to break her convictions.

After spending 18 months in solitary confinement, a punishment that Singh has labelled as "harrowing", Winnie says "To my jailors, I say 'Thank you'. To the Government, I say 'Thank you'. Because of you, I am no longer afraid".

Many questioned how Winnie would be characterised in the film. Singh says that she is highly misunderstood in real life, while Harris spoke of frustrations that views of Winnie are so often "polarized".

"To some she is a saint and 'Mother Africa', others demonize her and brand her a murderer and a terrorist," she says.
"What I found really hard was how to formulate a cohesive person from such different views, and then on top of that, to chart this journey from the age of 21 to 57".

Speaking of her role, Harris said "It's my job as a performer to understand [Winnie] and find a connection with her and find compassion. I have to say that was one of my challenges because I thought 'how do I connect with this woman?'

"It seemed that she stood for everything that I don't stand for. I'm not revengeful, I'm not full of hatred and I'm not full of anger.

"But if you really research Winnie, I think anyone would find compassion for her. She went through some really horrific, horrific things, and it would take a very saintly person to have turned out differently".

Harris' portrayal is powerful and moving, and we are bought to understand how her character came to perpetrate such incredibly violent acts, though the film at no point sanctions or even attempts to justify them. In fact, a thread that speaks of the power of forgiveness and the necessity of peaceful protest is woven throughout the film.

"We learn to hate; but we can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart," are Elba's final words in the film, while the camera pans across the beautiful South African rural landscape.

The social injustice that underpins the film and drove Mandela to fight for the freedom of his people is a powerful reminder to viewers today of the legacy of apartheid that is still so apparent in South Africa.

 "I have walked a long walk to freedom. It has been a long road and it is not over yet", Elba says towards the close of the film.

The film has been a huge hit since its opening in South Africa last weekend. Speaking of the premier in Johannesburg, during which members of Mandela's family were reduced to tears, Harris says it was incredibly nerve-wracking. "It's not just history up on screen, it's their lives. And they lived it. It was much more intense for them," she says.

Singh notes that as a South African himself, it gave him "huge satisfaction...watching it and watching every race group and every age group in a movie theatre together".

Harris, however, contends that the healing process of the nation is not yet finished.

"Where you have such a brutal regime, it leaves a huge footprint behind on a country and on the psyche of the people and the soul of the country...there's still a long way to go in order to bring about true equality," she says.

The film hopes to inspire viewers to believe that they can make a difference in their own communities, and is a call to end injustice. Singh says Mandela's story is "one of humility, of dignity, honesty, friendship and forgiveness. All of those are all hugely inspirational if you have one of them, and yet he covers so many of them".

"If Mandela started from the starting point that he started from, and achieved so much, what can we achieve, being where we are? I think that's a hugely inspirational message," says Harris.

"It only takes one man to change the world", a line of text across the screen at the end of the film reads, but Elba's Mandela asserts that a lone voice will struggle to make a difference, while a chorus of voices is unstoppable. A repeated action throughout the film is a demonstration that an individual finger is weak, yet a clenched fist is strong.

Long Walk to Freedom is a moving, honest and powerful portrayal of the atrocities of the apartheid, and reveals the power of humans when united for a cause – both good and bad. Embedded within it, I saw a call to challenge injustice in our own society.

Many people in our own communities are not free; they are burdened and shackled by the judgements and prejudices of others based on race, gender, sexuality and income. Even in death, Mandela is a symbol of peace, unity and freedom, and his tireless endeavours to bring justice and respect to all people is a mission worth embracing.

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