South African producer Anant Singh’s 20-year struggle to realize “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” has been compared with Richard Attenborough’s lengthy quest to make “Gandhi.” Their biographies are similar: Both chart the revolutionary course of an iconic political figure after being schooled as a lawyer, only to campaign for freedom against a “colonial” government, with a message of peaceful political reform.
Singh has produced several anti-Apartheid films over the last 30 years, including “Place of Weeping,” “Sarafina!” and “Cry, The Beloved Country.” Nelson Mandela himself called him “a producer I respect very much…a man of tremendous ability” when he granted him the film rights to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
Together with “Sarafina!” screenwriter William Nicholson, best known for “Gladiator,” and “The First Grader” director Justin Chadwick, Singh has willed a grand and sprawling adaptation of “Long Walk to Freedom” to life. Raising the $35 million in no-strings-attached financing and justifying a two hour-plus feature over a TV series was a long walk in itself.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” aims to be more emotionally resonant than historically precise. Nicholson’s screenplay turns Mandela’s life into an emotional journey for the audience, amplifying Mandela’s relationship with his wife Winnie, a dynamic brought home by Chadwick’s live-the-moment direction.
This echoes in the casting of Mandela, which reflects an interest in capturing the essence of the man over physical and facial congruence. While the make up helps convey the aging process, Idris Elba’s facial features and hulking silhouette are not instantly reminiscent of Mandela. Despite these setbacks, an almost unrecognizable Elba delivers an undoubtedly quintessential depiction of Mandela, channeling the South African leader’s immensely peaceful qualities with a marked consistency.
He’s supported by Naomie Harris as Winnie, who last worked with Chadwick in “The First Grader.” While she’s not as comfortable with the South African accent as Elba, she commands an emotionally taut performance as Nelson’s wife. Her portrayal is sympathetic, giving the audience a fly-on-the-wall experience of the personal devastation she suffered as the young wife and mother to such a major figure.
Adapting his autobiography to film was always going to be an ambitious undertaking and to this end, Singh has done an admirable job. While a mini-series would have given “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” more scope and time to immerse audiences in the extent of his personal and political struggles, this character portrait has been lovingly dramatized with all the focus on Madiba. This diminishes the impact of the “short trees,” his supporting cast of political disciples and actors, but leans heavily on a terrific turn by Elba, who carries the driving spirit of this two-and-a-half hour drama. The movie portrays its subject with near-religious undertones, aided in part by U2’s original compositions.
More than a movie, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is a vessel for a legacy. The filmmakers have crafted an epic political drama that isn’t as politically-biased towards the African National Congress as it is towards Mandela’s seemingly singlehanded deconstruction of Apartheid. He wasn’t the only man willing to die for his ideals, but as the figurehead and leader, his transitional role in South Africa’s reformation takes precedence.
Harvey Weinstein, currently promoting the film ahead of awards season, has also pushing for a curriculum tie-in for schools. The Weinstein Company has partnered with the American Federation of Teachers in what seems like an attempt to lure students to see the South African biopic on the strength of its thought-provoking lessons. This initiative would have been more noble if it had come as a precondition for acquiring the film rights.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is an important film for spreading an understanding of Mandela’s value, but it seems as though everyone wants a stake in the biopic’s virtue-by-association appeal. Last week, it screened at the White House. Then, just when it seemed as if Mandela’s political legacy was on every U.S. politician’s check list, it landed another screening at the Kennedy Center co-hosted by Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell and Senator John McCain.
Mandela’s name and image carry a message of hope and inspiration that embodies considerable weight in just about any language. In South Africa, he’s been leveraged for the sake of institutional credibility, product profitability and historical significance. Based on the promotional events surrounding the film’s upcoming release, it seems as though he’s also become a watermark for political integrity. In that regard, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is the result of many journeys.
Stephen Aspeling, better known as “Spling,” has turned a lifelong passion into a full-time pursuit, reviewing, writing and judging film for a host of South African websites, radio stations, magazines and movie events.