By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Friday, December 13, 2013.
Sometimes I love irony because
it reminds me to pay attention to the gift of remarkable moments. So recently, I’m honored
enough to host a public chat after a movie screening and the film is Mandela:
A Long Walk to Freedom. The next day, December 5, 2013, I’m sitting in
front of the television catching up on the news and I go to turn it off because
I’ve got to write my review of the film from the previous night but before I
press POWER, South African President Jacob Zuma announces to the world: Nelson
Mandela is now at peace. And right then I laugh and sniffle and it’s not
all grief; it’s joy and thanks and a spirit of reverence.
I flash back to
remembered scenes, Free Mandela rallies, an episode of A Different World when the students at
fictional HBCU Hillman debate how to best protest against companies investing
in South Africa. And then last night, the final note of the Mandela
panel – that when he passes, as we all knew of his frail health – that the
world take the time to pause, take notice and ponder his legacy. Mandela:
A Long Walk to Freedom is poised to lead that pause. It is not a
perfectly balanced film, but it is an emotionally impactful film and with
perfect timing and an extraordinary subject, ultimately memorable.
Mandela, based on Mandela’s autobiography, takes it place within the
impressive South African filmogaphy of producer Anant Singh (Place of
Weeping, Sarafina, Cry the Beloved Country). A South African
himself, Singh worked some nineteen years on Mandela with Nelson
Mandela’s blessing. The end result of this mighty and long effort is a film
that does not merely chronicle the life of a singular iconic figure but which
undertakes the herculean work of representing a nation and a people’s long and
bloody struggle to end racial apartheid and create a new South Africa. Mandela,
directed by Justin Chadwick and starring Idris Elba in an Oscar buzz worthy
turn as Mandela and a stunning Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela, accomplishes
several key feats, not the least of which is somewhat demystifying the iconic
moment people might recall in February 1990 when Mandela ‘walked’ out of prison
after twenty-seven years by first not ending the film with that moment and secondly
offering insight into the political maneuvering and long process preceding
Mandela’s release, including his secret parlays with government officials
representing President de Klerk.
We also get a
glimpse at the bond between Mandela and his fellow life imprisoned African
National Congress comrades who disagreed with Mandela’s efforts at negotiating
with the enemy. Mandela also does well too in delving into the immediate
aftermath of his release as violence tears apart the country amid a battle for
power against the Afrikaner controlled government and between blacks within and
outside the organization as they are torn over how to achieve power – violence
or not and how - and whether or not to share it with the Afrikaners who had for
so long maintained a brutal, total system of oppression.
The film tries
hard to invoke the sense of the collective nature of the anti-Apartheid
movement, mostly through a collage of images, crowds of black South Africans
fists raised around Winnie Mandela, chanting outside the courthouse where
Mandela and his comrades are tried and sentenced, and later shots of brutal
mass killings post Mandela’s release. Chadwich relies quite a bit on
representing the collective body of South African protesters through, as is
often the case in films seeking to represent a movement in it’s time, a fast
paced collage of images, creating a newsreel. This can cover a lot of ground
and help to convey the intensity of the revolution and underline its historical
import, but it also unfortunately frames the people and their story through the
same generic distillation that happens in news media from outside.
of time – twenty-seven years in prison and more years of the struggle – is the
other central element in the history of Mandela and the revolution that the
film struggles to pull off here too relying on a staple of narrative film – the
expert artistic aging of characters. There is something unsettling about that,
robust, black haired men in their prime suddenly grey then suddenly more grey
and frail. This visual appearance aims to suggest the passage of time, hard
time, but doesn’t convey adequately the horror of that seemingly endless
everydayness of imprisonment. The touching scene between Mandela and ZindZi
visiting her father for the first time on Robben Island and the death of his
first-born son whom he is denied permission to bury are exceptions.
But perhaps the
most poignant achievement of the film is the intimate peak into the
relationship of Nelson and Winnie Mandela from its inception, on the heels of
the demise of his first marriage, through courtship and the destruction of a
great love and a marriage as both are persecuted for their unyielding
commitment to the struggle for freedom. It’s painful to watch that great toll
on Winnie, Nelson, and their children as well as Mandela’s previous family.
But this is also where the film turns to developing a problematic portrait of
Winnie Mandela. Winnie is jailed, separated from her daughters, and tortured
after her husband is sent to Robben Island; the film situates this as the
catalyst for her transformation, not into a radical activist and political
strategist but militant avenging baadasss who leads the ANC and the younger
generation into mere violent chaos.
invokes the resiliency of Winnie Mandela and her fighting spirit in the set of
the shoulders, the rage, brave defiance, and pain she displays while being
tortured by her captors but coming out resilient and more determined to fight
against the oppression of her people. It is not difficult to understand
why Winnie Mandela and her daughters approve Harris’s performance. Harris
visited with Winnie Mandela and her two daughters while preparing for the role.
Yet, the film
falls short in treating the vastly more complicated character, role, and
brilliance of Winnie Mandela, and her relationship to the people especially
young South Africans who identified more with her than Nelson Mandela. Winnie
Mandela’s controversial role in the revolution and her reported involvement in
orchestrating the violence during it render her a much more challenging figure
to perhaps adequately represent as she is not the globally iconized,
undisputedly saintly figure that Nelson Mandela became.
However, she was
instrumental in keeping his name and sacrifice alive during his years of
imprisonment. There is little treatment of her years of long confinement under
house arrest. She is simply a woman robbed of all humor, gone emotionally cold.
Nelson Mandela is intellectuality, rationality, and nobility while Winnie, is
uncontrollable emotion – a fanatic, avenging vigilante, ball of rage, and
essentially an angry black woman bent on revenge rather than justice. She gets
in the way of the men [white and black], attempting to reasonably negotiate
terms for achieving peace and the transition in power.
The portrait of
Winnie Mandela teeters into caricature as she’s reduced to a sort of Black
Power-esque diva fierce face, raised fist, afro and what appears to be paranoia
rather than justified questioning and suspicioning of the Afrikaners overtures
to her husband. Alongside her regal husband winning over whites and the
world by seeking peace and exhibiting only love and patience towards all,
Winnie Mandela’s main role in the film becomes to function as the antithesis of
her husband’s right way to a new South Africa. Other women, the few
seemingly important enough to depict, don’t fare too well either, as Nelson
Mandela’s first wife Evelyn is treated unsympathetically as merely incapable of
understanding and supporting his involvement in fighting against apartheid.
A Long Walk to Freedom is a significant film, even more so now as it
will help to do the work of keeping this history alive presently and in the
future. The film concludes after the official end of the total political
domination of the Afrikaners with Nelson Mandela’s voice. The story of
apartheid’s difficult legacy continues in South Africa, but Mandela: A Long
Walk to Freedom effectively invokes the wondrous spirit of Madiba and the
resiliency and collective movement of his people and his
Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer who directs the
Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse
College. She teaches film, creative writing, and literature. She is the
author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action
Films (U of Illinois Press). Her
writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher
Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others.
Her recent work includes the Bronze Lens-Georgia Lottery Lights, Camera
Georgia winning short film Fight for Hope and book
chapters exploring representation in Tyler Perry's films.