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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. 

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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.  

The endlessness 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. 

Naomi Harris 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. 

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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.  

Still, Mandela: 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 country. 

***

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 bookBaad 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.comand Best African American Essaysamong 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.

 

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