Co-presented by the Pan African Film Festival, this biopic was another AFI Fest “Special Screening.” Joining the cinematic surge of Black-themed cinema, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It follows him from a childhood steeped in African tradition to his career as an activist attorney, freedom fighter, political prisoner and the first president of a democratic South Africa.
Idris Elba (who has appeared in those flicks about another superhero, Thor) convincingly portrays the anti-apartheid leader through the decades, as he goes underground and leads a campaign of sabotage and armed resistance against the white supremacists. As Winnie Mandela, Naomie Harris (Skyfall) likewise realistically ages; both actors’ flesh seem to have actual wrinkles. The couple’s forced separation and the viciousness of the racist regime takes its toll on their marriage, and seems to drive Winnie around the proverbial bend.
This film is extremely enjoyable, with lots of standup and cheer moments and great performances. But once Nelson is released from prison the movie’s politics take a questionable turn. In Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Winnie’s militancy seems due to madness, while the noble Nelson strives for a nonviolent resolution of South Africa’s deepening crisis. Except for the “necklacing” of informers, Blacks are glimpsed killing other Blacks, without any context or explanation, while Africans are never shown killing their white oppressors.
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As with Clint Eastwood’s 2009 Invictus Mandela becomes an emblem of brotherly love who turns his back on armed struggle. This might explain why South Africa may have had a political revolution, wherein the apparatus of apartheid has been dismantled, but not an share-the-wealth revolution, which has left much of the old white power structure still riding in the economic saddle.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, published by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.