It has been said that to whom much is given, much is required. Any wife of a high profile husband can attest that sharing her husband with the world is part of the territory. But being apart from your husband for more than 20 years while he’s incarcerated, makes being a wife infinitely harder.
The film’s titular inspiration, Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (played by Idris Elba), died on Dec. 5, the evening of the film’s London premiere. News of his passing reverberated throughout the world with many – including Queen Elizabeth and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – expressing the loss of such a great historical figure. It also elevates the appeal of Long Walk to a must-see film.
Long Walk to Freedom hits the highlights of Mandela’s life, with a major focus on what sparked Mandela to go from beleaguered lawyer to activist. It circles his personal relationships just long enough for the audience to see him fall in love with his first wife, Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) and then his second wife, Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris).
The bulk of the last half of the film focuses on Mandela’s incarceration, subsequent release and his acceptance of the South African presidency. He was president from 1994-1999. Based on Mandela’s own auto-biography, Long Walk to Freedom is a crash course into the life of the prolific man.
But, we the audience, can’t help but feel like something is missing. We still don’t feel like we know the man Nelson Mandela and what drives him, what makes him tick.
We know he’s influential because of his imprisonment and later presidency, as well as the countless news programs highlighting his life’s story. But, we don’t get the inside look of what really drove Mandela to fight so hard and be willing to give his life for the cause.
Elba as Mandela is superb. He has the accent down. He also tries to diminish his distinctive stride to play the inexhaustible leader. Are Elba’s efforts enough to get the point across? Almost. Had the film been extended to three hours or to a longer miniseries, maybe the audience wouldn’t have felt like we just rushed through a man’s life in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Great work takes time to deliver.
This isn’t just Mandela’s story, though. The key members of the African National Congress (ANC) were imprisoned along with Mandela and they stuck by each other in those 27 years of incarceration. Like Mandela, they were also willing to give their lives. Perhaps Chadwick was going for a more subtle approach in explaining Mandela’s driving force by incorporating the members of the ANC in the film.
Take Walter Sisulu (played by Tony Kgoroge).
He seems more like a mentor to Mandela than a fellow party member. This man, according to the film, saw who Mandela would become before Mandela did. He also worked to help shape the great man who became the president of South Africa. Sadly, this character seems to be undervalued. Granted, it is about Mandela, but no man is an island.
Another actor of note is Naomie Harris and her performance as Winnie Mandela. I will admit, besides knowing her name as Mandela’s wife, I didn’t know how much of an impact Winnie had on Mandela’s cause to seek equal rights for black South Africans.
She is portrayed as a villain here. We see her as a crazy rabble rouser, hungry for war, and full of hatred. And, just in case the audience doesn’t perceive that notion, Winnie dresses in army fatigues.
But every story has more than one side. This is just one recounting of events as told by her ex-husband. In her defense, any wife would be angry about not being able to see or touch her husband for 27 years.
Mandela will always live on in our hearts and minds as the man who helped inspire the end of Apartheid in South Africa and became the first black South African president. He showed all of us that difference makes no difference and we shouldn’t be as bad as our persecutors.
We also know that being the wife of a high profile person means sharing your husband with the world. In that regard, Chadwick succeeds. What Chadwick has here is a moving piece on Mandela that will surely spark a generation to do their own research to get to know the man.