IT WAS during the London première of Mandela: Long Walk to
Freedom (Cert. 12A) that Zinzi Mandela was given the the news
of her father's death. Since then, the world's media have been
flooded with tributes to the former President of South Africa.
Parallels have been drawn with the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther
King, and even Jesus. Mandela cautioned against hagiography,
"unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying".
This film, 16 years in the making (Mandela gave the South
African producer Anant Singh the rights to his autobiography in
1996), does not shy away from the sins of its subject. His failings
as a husband and father are laid bare, including an incident of
domestic violence. Nevertheless, it leaves viewers in no doubt that
they are in the presence of a giant.
Mandela, played by the British actor Idris Elba, towers above
all who cross his path. At 6 ft 2 ins., Elba is just one inch
shorter than Mandela. For younger audiences, it is a reminder that
the elderly statesman was once a strapping young man, fond of sharp
three-piece suits, with an even sharper line in seduction.
His stature is also symbolic. Throughout the film, he remains
uncowed, radiating dignity, and authority, whether he is
interrupting a cinema screening to tell the audience that they must
"submit or fight", or demanding that his fellow prisoners receive
long trousers. The effect is to portray Mandela as a giant,
sublunary but extraordinary. As Jacob Zuma, his successor as
President, said at the memorial event: "There is no one like
Madiba: he was one of a kind."
It is, perhaps, because of this depiction that the most
affecting scenes in the film are not those set on Robben Island,
but those that tell the story of Winnie Mandela, whose response to
the outrages perpetrated against her are both chilling and
intelligible. While her husband is refined in the fire of
incarceration, emerging, as Archbishop Tutu put it, a near-flawless
diamond, she is shown growing hard as granite, full of rage, and
thirsty for revenge.
When asked by Mandela how she bears police brutality, she
replies: "By hating them. And don't tell me I am wrong. It keeps me
strong." When she emerges from 18 months of solitary confinement,
blinking in the sunlight, she warns the gathered press: "I am not
young any more. And I'm not afraid any more."
It is a powerful performance by Naomie Harris, another British
actor. Winnie Mandela has given it her blessing, describing it as
the first time she has been truly captured on screen. Harris has
described it as the hardest thing she has ever done: "I felt
overtaken by her."
Throughout the film, she brilliantly captures the force of
Winnie's dignity and hauteur, and the charisma that has secured her
enduring popularity (Winnie was greeted with ululations at the
première). "Don't touch me," she hisses at the guards who tell her
she cannot take her baby into the court-house to hear her husband
stand trial. It is hard not to experience a thrill when she emerges
on the steps, after hearing the verdict, her head held high, her
fist raised, as she cries "Amandla!" ("Power!"). The scene
in which she is first imprisoned and screams for her children is
"The circumstances she was in were primed to make her seek
revenge and be full of anger and be violent," Harris told The
Guardian. "I don't know how anyone else could react
differently in the face of that kind of daily brutality that she
Although the film depicts the consequences of Winnie hatred,
including her infamous speech about boxes of matches and necklaces,
it is ultimately a sympathetic portrayal, clearly contrasting the
paths of husband and wife, but explaining, if not excusing, the
Towards the end of the film, Mandela observes that "What they
have done to my wife is their only victory over me." The pathos of
this admission is affecting because of the contrast with the early
scenes of their courtship, which are electrifying, a beautiful,
boisterous young man meeting his match.
Some may take issue with the film's representation of Mandela's
faith, or rather, lack thereof.
"I don't see your God caring for your people," he tells his
first wife, Ethel. "It seems to me that he is looking after the
When he does refer to God again, it is a cynical attempt to win
de Klerk's co-operation, by repeating back to him what he has been
told is the President's own conviction: that God is calling him to
"save the people of South Africa".
Telling the life story of Mandela in a feature film is arguably
an impossible task, and Long Walk is not particularly
inventive. Instead of concentrating on a particular episode, as
Lincoln did, or experimenting with chronology, as
Amadeus did, the writer, William Nicholson, has opted for
a straightforward linear narrative, interspersed very occasionally
with contemporary footage.
It is a well-paced film, nevertheless, which conveys the moral
authority of its subject, and, in devoting attention to Winnie's
story, paints a sobering picture of what might have been, had
hatred proved stronger than the desire to live free from fear.
On release from today.