Nelson Mandela wasn’t always Nelson Mandela. And in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Justin Chadwick’s glossy biopic based on the former South African president’s memoir, it’s clear he was as human as anyone, even if history tends to forget.
Early in the film we see the man, played by the excellent British actor Idris Elba, as an amateur boxer and hotshot defense attorney in Johannesburg in the '40s. Even then, he has the power to magnetize those around him, although as he makes clear over dinner with friends in the African National Council, he wants no part in anything he can’t do himself. He is a selfish man, intoxicated by women, and in his mind, hard work and education are the only true paths from dispair.
Mandela eventually comes to realize that he's at his strongest when has other shoulders to lean on. Later on, when he learns his eldest son, Thembi, has been struck and killed by an automobile, it is a close friend who comes to his jail cell to offer kind words. And it is that cohort, along with six others imprisoned with Mandela for 27 years, who lifts his spirits with jokes and a knowing grin when they’re hammering rocks in prison.
In the 1990s, when the president of South Africa invites Mandela to his office for a private visit, Mandela consults with his friends. The president is willing to grant him freedom in return for calling an end to the black-on-black violence plaguing the country. But as tempting as that sounds, Mandela refuses to make a decision alone, instead deciding to hold a vote with his friends. One man, he says echoing a sentiment made earlier in the film, cannot accomplish what many can.
With his towering presence and stricken, world-weary eyes, Elba deftly conveys the nobility of the great man's cause to end apartheid in South Africa. Early on in the film, he delivers several speeches that not only draw the attention of beautiful women, including the future Winnie Mandela, Nelson's second wife and eventual adversary, but his peers, who are incited to action.
Given Elba's dapper suits in those scenes, the future president probably looked good doing it. But Mandela also had an incredible speaking voice and a knack for touching on the things that mattered most to his people: their families, freedom, and a voice in the government. "I refuse to see a government that will not see us," he says in one scene as he's burning his identification papers. Soon, a group of villagers crowded around him are doing the same.
The conceit of Long Walk to Freedom seems to be that Nelson and Winnie were the only ones responsible for South Africa's transformation. But at the same time, South Africa is instrumental in Nelson's own metamorphosis. The film opens with a scene of Mandela as a teen in a rustic village, and a short time later shows his mother, a simple tribal woman who is ashamed of her young son's philandering. Although the film fails to fully explore this era, it strives to convey that Mandela was someone who never lost touch with his roots. That much is evident in the sweeping panoramic views of the country and Mandela's African chant for freedom.
When Mandela raised his voice, Africans knew he was speaking for them.