In the wake of the recent death of its subject, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom carries a responsibility beyond those of most biopics. It now stands as accidental eulogy for a complicated man, one of the greatest statesmen of the last century.
And for the most part, Mandela is content to examine the latter, providing a simplified and sometimes tepid study of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s life and politics—and their inevitable crossroads when he spends nearly 30 years imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the state. There is no doubt the task before director Justin Chadwick was a difficult one; rarely can a life be encapsulated well over such a scope, and rarer is the Mandela biopic that’s tried. (Most recently, 2009’s Invictus focused on a single moment in time: the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a major step in post-apartheid cultural relations in South Africa, during which Mandela exercised every public-relations muscle he had to unite the country in support of their rugby team.)
But Mandela’s approach is a longer one, beginning with his idyllic sun-drenched childhood and touching on his increasing political activism, his uneasy personal life and his place in South Africa’s growing resistance to apartheid politics. It’s just as well, then, that the movie can claim Idris Elba as its Madiba. An immensely powerful and magnetic actor, Elba’s performance has an easy depth that often suggests more nuance than the script makes time for and gives necessary—if not particularly electric—weight to the many Mandela speeches the movie quotes. Elba neatly handles them all, though he seems more invested in the small, quiet beats that nearly single-handedly lend Mandela the doubts, ambivalence and sharp edges the script often skips over.
There is a dark side to this Mandela, but Chadwick is careful to relegate it to the personal sphere, where he’s often callous to his first wife. But Mandela’s political arc is a single trajectory of leadership within the ANC and later in prison; even his coming-of-age flashbacks ruminate on the duties of a man. His political struggles within the ANC and his communist ties are two of many complications the movie staunchly ignores in favor of a smoother, more simply uplifting story. It’s an understandable impulse: Mandela is, rightfully, lauded for his work dismantling South Africa’s apartheid government and his post-political charity work. However, Chadwick occasionally positions him as a figurehead in his own story, glossing over Mandela’s keen political mind in favor of his presence alone being enough to affect change. It can feel like a missed opportunity, particularly since Mandela’s meetings with government officials towards the end of his imprisonment is Elba at his best—wry, pragmatic, ambivalent about being sole spokesman, yearning for peace but wary of compromise—and a glimpse at the Mandela who led his nation.
Interestingly, though the movie neatly lays out some of the innumerable reasons the white apartheid government essentially imprisoned black South Africans in their own nation, Mandela’s anger is generally kept within acceptable limits for a hero: paternal, aggrieved, noble and usually short-lived. For anger that burns, the movie turns to Winnie Mandela, a political activist in her own right when her husband was sent to prison, who became a frequent target of the regime in his absence. Naomie Harris, always a welcome screen presence, takes on the role with the incendiary focus of a born star. One of the film’s most powerful moments involves her walking up the stairs of the courthouse where Mandela’s being tried, and she delivers chilling anguish about her solitary confinement. In Harris’ hands, Winnie’s increasingly-militant resistance becomes equal parts unsettling and hypnotic.
Still, though the movie shows us glimpses of the violence she endorsed, it stops short of investigating too much of the turmoil within the black South African community, likely trying to keep its narrative a simpler redemption story than reality allows. And, perhaps unfortunately, the brutality of the white government officials against peaceful protests speaks the same visual language as violent internal conflict. They share a shaky immediacy that conveys their brutality but does little to thematically distinguish the conflicts. Without taking the time to examine political context around its events, the portrayal of some of the escalating violence becomes just another abstract problem for Mandela to solve with an inspiring word or two.
In his 1993 memoir Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, “There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people;’ instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” Mandela has taken this to heart, presenting us with a reluctant messiah figure whose innate force of personality altered the shape of a nation. Despite some threads of truth, Mandela often feels like an unfinished sketch, lacking depth and avoiding the difficult spaces. And though the movie is palpably a work of love, it still offers something less than its subject deserves.