Where were you when history happened? When, for example, JFK was assassinated, or Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon? When the Berlin Wall came down, or Barack Obama became the US President? Or, say, when Nelson Mandela died?
Ironically, I was at Odeon Leicester Square in the company of a good friend, new friends from Brand South Africa who hosted me, and the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, many UK dignitaries, celebrities and the cast and crew of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom at the royal performance of what will possibly always be remembered as an apt send off for an icon.
As the image of a smiling Mandela walking in a field of gold faded, even before the end credits began rolling, we had got the news in some sort of Chinese whispers and my friend, a South African, burst out in tears. Her words ever so poignant: “If it weren’t for him, I would not be here.” To leave such a legacy that your absence would make millions’ lives drastically worse and your presence made them tremendously better.
Growing up, Mandela’s freedom, and afterwards, his presidency did not make much of a dent in my existence; he was a far away figure in some distant land, with worries far from my own. It was only in my twenties, I came to appreciate the depth of his sacrifice, the height of his impact; it is now, with close South African friends, I truly appreciate how his life, his imprisonment, his freedom, his presidency, his legacy have helped shaped a nation and its people.
Mandela: Long Way to Freedom does much justice to this amazing life turned legacy. Based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society and directed by Justin Chadwick, the film stars Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. The film has already become the South Africa’s all-time highest grossing picture following its release in November.
Despite the humongous task of encompassing such a life on film in all its length and depth, Chadwick succeeds weaving in Madiba’s personal and political story with archive footage of conflict in South Africa through the decades and more poetic scenes of stunning cinematographic beauty as Mandela remembers his wife Winnie and his children in flashbacks of sun-washed hues.
William Nicholson’s screenplay hurtles us along with barely a moment of reflection – and rightly so, as there is too much life to get through with all its momentous milestones – so we see young lawyer with fire in his belly and a twinkle in his eye for the ladies, the rebel with fire in his veins, the reflective prisoner on the inescapable, the intolerable Robben Island finding solace in memories of his family, the older father figure with white hair, dignity and gravitas who unites a broken nation.
The film aims to portray its hero not as a flawless icon but a man with his flaws, like any other man. As much as his first marriage and his treatment of his first wife Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) is not glossed over, later on as his second marriage to Winnie falters, she is not portrayed a villain either. In fact, I dare any woman watching not to feel sympathy for Winnie, knowing perhaps she would not become the woman fate forced her hand to become had circumstances been different.
While Idris Elba’s strong physique does justice to a larger than life figure, and credit where it is due, he seems to have fully grasped not only the accent and speech patterns but also the body language of his character, I was not able to suspend disbelief and picture Stringer Bell as Madiba. Naomie Harris looked more West African than South African; however she made the feistly, militant Winnie her own.
A poignant movie about a beautiful soul, now all the more worth watching in the aftermath of its hero’s passing.