Nelson Mandela’s death last month provided an outpouring of emotion for a man who was already a worldwide icon, and a symbol of worldwide struggle against what W.E.B Dubois called the problem of the 20th century, “The Color Line.” It also motivated people fighting against war, occupation, sexism, and every other kind of social ill on this planet. Mandela’s struggle has been documented on film before. Most of these films have been episodic, for instance, Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine’s potrayal of the negotiations to end Apartheid in “Mandela and DeKlerk”, Morgan Freeman’s potrayal of Mandela’s skillfull usage of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in 2009’s “Invictus”, and Dennis Haysbert’s 2007 potrayal of Mandela’s jail term in “Goobye Banafa.” These films potrayed specific incidents in Mandela’s life, but the world had not yet recieved a full potrait of the great man’s story. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, directed by Justin Chadwick, and starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, is a full life potrait of Mandela taken from his own autobiography. “Winnie Mandela”, the controversial production starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard as the Mandela’s, is a South African production avaliable on DVD that attempts to tell the life story of Winnie Madikezela Mandela herself.
“Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom” is quite simply a must see, and will become the go to flick for Nelson Mandela bios. The film takes its story from his autobiography and chronicles his early years as a young lawyer in Johannesburg and partner in the country’s only black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, the dissolution of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, his days of direct activism, his militant days as “The Black Jacobin”, on through his imprisonment on Robben Island and the series of prisons he was moved to leading up to the negotiations to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Elba gives a confident performance as Mandela, and one that grows with the man, starting off as a brash young lawyer who believes in his ability to impact change through the letter of the law and his own excellence, moving to a firebrand militant and maturing into an elder statesman. The arc he plays is from twenty something to Mandela in his ’70s. The film begins at an excellent point to start a movie about a great African man, at his manhood initiation ritual that takes him into adult manhood. I especially enjoyed the scenes of Mandela flirting in Johannesburg sheebens, even using the racial politics of the time as part of his rap. Mandela tells a lovely young South African lady that the law determines who can have relations by whether a pencil sticks in their hair, and he demonstrates this as part of his rap. He also spurns the ANC’s first overtures toward him, but gets involved when he sees the impact of people concentrating their efforts has over individual effort, a lesson he himself will teach to a young revolutionary who gets shipped to jail years after Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership are incarcerated.
Much of the actual tension and the heart of the film comes from the relationship between Elba’s Mandela and Harris’s Winnie. The film covers the arc of their relationship from Mandela’s days of chasing her at the bus stop, to her support for him in jail, to her own 18 months in solitary confinement and the steel resolve it gave her. Harris does a good job of conveying change from a mild social worker and wife to the strong and untractable leader Winnie Mandela became. The film also deals with the pathos of the dissolution of the Mandela’s marraige amid his release from jail.
One of the things I enjoy most about the film is the way it incorporates things from the autobiography. For instance, in the book, Mandela talks about the Elizabeth Taylor classic “Cleopatra”, and the fact that the Queens potrayal by a white woman was a big topic when the movie was screened in South Africa, “however beautiful” Taylor may have been. In the film, Mandela, under political ban, sneaks into a township movie theather at night, getting up on stage to interrupt an Elizabeth Taylor movie, and he says, “She’s beautiful but I prefer Sophia Loren.” Another thing from the book that made it into the film was a suit African leaders had hand tailored for Mandela when he was in jail for him to look Presidential when he was negotiating for the end of Aparthied. For readers, who generally are dissatisfied with film versions of books, these little touches are gratifiying.
“Long Walk to Freedom” is a must see, ultimately it’s a character driven film that aims to show the incredible circumstances the Mandela’s faced in trying to free their people while at the same time making great sacrifices in their personal lives. It will definitely be a good film to teach children about Nelson Mandela’s life, or to educate ourselves if our own knowledge of it is in embryonic stage. Of course, a fuller picture can be gained from actually reading the book it was based on which is an excellent portrait of Mandela’s life and South African history as he saw it, and also digging into the wealth of information out there about South Africa and the struggle against Aparthied. But on a cinematic, entertainment level, “Long Walk to Freedom” delivers behind strong performances by its lead actors.
“Winnie Mandela” starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard takes a look at the same events through the life of Mandela’s second wife and the one he was married to the longest, his comrade in the struggle Winnie Madikezela Mandela. The film has a much smaller feel than “Long Walk to Freedom”, almost like a television special, but a film can only feel so small in the majesty of the South African environment. Winnie’s life is covered from her early days as a tomboy in her village, the granddauther of a chief, born to a schoolteacher father who wanted a son. From there, she moves to Johannesburg to study social work, where she is introduced to the limitations of her Aparthied system, and an activist named Nelson Mandela, who picks her up at the bus stop. From there we see the Mandela story through Winnie’s life and activism, including some insights into the particular humiliations she may have faced as a woman in such an unjust system, including the 18 months she faced in solitary confinement. We’re given a portrait of a woman who fights back in real and symbolic ways, from wearing native dress to court which earns her a reprimand from the judges, to giving speeches on her husbands behalf, from throwing up on South African soldiers feet when she gets seasick on a trip to Robbins Island, to singing songs in her native Xhosa to maintain her strength that drives her jailers up the wall, to leading the Mandela Football Club and getting control of the slums of Johannesburg.
Jennifer Hudson gives a pretty good performance in a difficult role. She does a good job with the South African accent and also with the zeal Mandela had for liberation. Howard’s performance is well meaning and captures the essence of Mandela at times, but I can’t help but thing it’s held back a little bit by the clunkiness of his accent. I do like his decision however to speak certain scenes in Xhosa and I do feel he grows into the gravitas of the role slowly but surely.
I espeically like the scenes where Mandela moves back to Soweto and moves and shakes with the “Mandela Football Club.” It almost reminds a scene in an old blaxploitation film, when her bodygaurd opens the back door of a BMW for her to get in, and we get scenes of her pushing her way into night clubs to meet local power brokers. The potrayal of Mandela as an older activist returning to a Soweto disorganized and wracked by violence was a particularly true to life one to me, and helped me understand the bad press she’s gotten over the last 20 years. It reminded me of Huey Newton returning to Oakland in the 1970s after having been in jail, faced with reorganizing the Black Panther Party and getting control of the activities on the Oakland Streets. When you see a man breaking into her house and putting a knife to her neck you’ll understand the reputation for stern activities she developed in later years.
“Winnie Mandela” is not as strong or comprehensive a film as “Long Walk to Freedom”, but it is invaluable still because it deals with the story from Winnie’s side. It is not as strong towards the end as the Mandela film, but that’s in part because Winnie’s life after Mandela’s release was more problematic. But I do feel putting the two films together gives one a fuller cinematic picture of the lives of these two great South Africans.