“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”–a story worth knowing in a movie that should have been better

Last night, I saw “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” with a group of 22 high-school students. It was not a class assignment—they all showed up voluntarily, because, they told us, they understand the importance of what Nelson Mandela accomplished in South Africa and wanted to know more about his story.

We all worried that the movie—at two hours and 20 minutes—was going to be too long. But when I reminded myself that Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison, I figured that I should be able to tolerate  a lousy two-plus hours in a plush movie theatre.

And I was. Mandela’s remarkable story of personal growth, incredible patience, and transformation from violent revolutionary to peacemaker is a saga that deserves memorialization and emulation. So, when the movie ended, and we gathered for a few moments in the lobby to reflect, it was satisfying to hear that the students liked the movie and felt inspired by Mandela.

The movie, based on Mandela’s autobiography, hits all the important dates and events, like a middle-school timeline project: His childhood in a tribal area of South Africa–check; his early activism as a lawyer on behalf of black South Africans–check; his marriages–check; his realization that non-violence was not achieving the goals of fairness, equality and majority rule–check; his long imprisonment; the radicalization of his beloved Winnie; his emergence as the post-apartheid leader of all South Africans. All of the above.

It’s all there—a mile wide and an inch deep. Unfortunately, in the worthy effort to portray the sweep of Mandela’s life and times, the filmmakers have created a superficial view of a very complicated life.

Idris Elba does a good job of imitating Mandela’s voice, cadence, accent and loping walk. But, as to Mandela’s thought process and the transformational conversations he surely had with himself and with the other ANC leaders jailed with him, we get almost no insight—just Elba looking pensive. To me, that’s the crux of the story—and that’s what missing from this movie: What happened during his imprisonment, and what was he thinking and saying to others that altered his ideas about how to bring about change in South Africa?

The movie left me with many unanswered questions that could have been addressed if it had used its screen time more wisely. I suppose it’s the filmmaker’s way of helping us understand that Mandela was an imperfect hero, but the movie wastes time showing him charming every woman in sight and ruining his initially idyllic first marriage by giving it less priority than his activism. My cynical view of the cinematic dalliance with one-night stands and marriages is that offered an excuse for some crowd-pleasing romance and sex.

Perhaps it would have been a better movie if the filmmakers hadn’t felt obliged to comprehensively follow the chronological timeline of Mandela’s autobiography. A reimagining of the story might have focused more on Mandela’s time in prison, because this seems to be the period that defined him.

Much is implied in the movie’s time-compressed portrayal of those critical 27 years, but little is explained. Early in his imprisonment, Mandela tells his ANC prison mates that they’re going to press for better conditions, one small increment at a time. If you look carefully, you can observe that, over time, they get better clothing, actual beds, more small amenities in their cells. But how did that happen? How did Mandela—thrown into an extremely harsh prison, and barely spared execution—manage to win these small victories? Did his approach to life in prison reveal something about his character, his leadership abilities and his evolution from non-violent activist to firebrand and back again? How did he communicate with the outside world and maintain his leadership while completely isolated on Robben Island? And later, what is the reasoning behind transferring him to a plush [prison] estate for the final years before he is released?

I would guess that there is a great deal to learn about Mandela’s character from his prison years—but, sadly, a movie focusing on 28 years in a prison cell probably wouldn’t make it past the Hollywood pitch room. [Unless it was “Bird Man of Alcatraz.”]

Mandela’s story is important, and the filmmakers and actors are to be credited with a good effort. They deserve kudos for tackling the difficult topic of South African apartheid and for depicting the terrible violence and injustice perpetrated on its own people by the white South African government. But this is a Hollywood treatment of Mandela’s story, clearly made to appeal to an American audience, replete with “Out-of-Africa” aerial photography that had me half expecting Robert Redford to fly over in a bi-plane, and musically programmed with a white-bread, romantic, violin-laden score that swells right on cue. [Couldn’t they have found some actual African music for those sequences? We do hear African songs, but only when they are chanted by protesters and wedding guests. And, as the credits roll, it’s not indigenous music that plays us out the door, it’s a song by U2.] I was surprised that we never heard the oft-sung protest anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, which, at Mandela’s insistence, later became South Africa’s national anthem. Imagine what a powerful ending this would have offered the movie:

As an aside, one of the time stamps shown in the movie—1948—reminded me that the South African freedom movement ran parallel to the anti-colonial movement in India. It also reminded me that the oppression of South Africa’s black population—and the official institution of apartheid laws—came just a few years after the end of the Holocaust in Europe, so, apparently, the Afrikaans [Dutch] government in South Africa either learned nothing from the shameful example of the Third Reich, or felt little shame in emulating its tactics of ghettoizing and persecuting classes of people they didn’t like.

I’m often dismayed by historically based movies that—variously—gloss over big issues, distort the facts, or blatantly invent new ones {see: Oliver Stone]. But one positive effect historical movies can have is to inspire me to get better informed. This one did precisely that. Time to get started.