Making Real Progress… For The Biopic: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Directed by Justin Chadwick

Last June, rumors of Nelson Mandela’s imminent death sparked a 24-hour frenzy of journalist-shuttling and social media vulturism, breathtaking for its morbid presumptions and telling in its desperation. As things stand, the repeated failures of Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, to rule South Africa in the interests of its marginalized black voters in his wake will—should—eventually eclipse the stratospheric reputation of the 92-year-old freedom fighter. But his legend won’t go easy; thusly The Weinstein Company offers up this epic weepie, charting Mandela’s struggle from the 1940s to the end of apartheid in 1994.

Five decades is a ruinous span of time for most biopics (or films!), but in Mandela’s case the long arc makes sense. Screenwriter William Nicholson doesn’t sugarcoat the schism between Nelson and Winnie Mandela that led to their divorce after his release from Robben Island, nor the mind-blowing brutality of the Afrikaners’ regime; this isn’t one of those movies—like Goodbye Bafana or Invictus—about Mandela’s relationships with a few exceptional whites.

Surprisingly sturdy, Mandela boasts two extraordinary performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris; despite being closer in looks to Burt Lancaster, Elba puts an unmistakable charge into his portrayal, capturing Mandela’s flinty, regal prowess. As with classic—aka, historically bupkis—Hollywood pictures, the performers’ ability to move audiences can make a world of difference. That said, director Chadwick’s approach is decidedly traditional, even if skeptics such as myself can find themselves pleased by how complicated the subject matter is allowed to appear.

The film offers nothing to counter or engage with old idolatries; understandable but ill-fitting splotches of archival footage raise the question of how the ANC built so much international support while its hero was locked in prison for decades on end. (Oliver Tambo, who spent his life drumming up awareness and resources to dismantle the regime while Mandela was imprisoned, might as well not exist in Chadwick’s version of events. Same goes for Chris Hani, Steve Biko, or Thabo Mbeki.) But for history to be reduced to good soap—as opposed to pure, gurgling hagiography—should be recognized as some kind of progress.

Opens November 29

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