‘I want my family to be proud of me’

By their very nature biopics tend to be strewn with issues that generally involve understanding the person portrayed, other peoples’ attitudes towards them and, of course, that person’s legacy. In many ways this is potentially problematic when the biopic in question is based not only on the autobiography of its subject but when that subject is still in the limelight. As this film received its UK premiere, it was announced that Nelson Mandela had passed away at the age of 95 following a long-term lung condition.

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom has been carefully constructed to recount the multiple decades of the life of its protagonist and condense them to to two and a half hours of screen time. Naturally there is a huge amount of a fascinating life story that has to be compressed and yet, even with necessary omissions, the screenplay has been designed to capture a compelling story.

Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) is born and raised in a country in turmoil, with many of its population decreed lesser citizens because of the colour of their skin, something that becomes more prevalent and malevolent as the years pass by. In 1942 the newly graduated Mandela uses his law degree to achieve justice by the best means he can, working in a court system where he feels that ‘there is no law for us.’ His outside interests include boxing and girls but the increased declaration of white supremacy and militaristic oppression against his fellow countrymen lead Mandela to the join the ANC, where he eventually becomes a central figure. A brutal massacre of protesters by police in Sharpeville in 1960 results in the ANC declaring that it will no longer protest by non-violent means and a campaign of sabotage begins. In 1963 Mandela is captured by the authorities and, together with fellow members of the ANC, is brought to trial where he could face death. Instead, the court sentences him to life imprisonment. Incarcerated initially in Robben Island, Mandela faces hard labour and no opportunity to see his wife Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris) or their children. Time passes and prisons change but Mandela remains a convict as long as the Apartheid system shows no chance of deconstruction, even if there is some success in his group obtaining long trousers to wear. However, after decades of incarceration, the authorities begin talks and eventually, with the world watching, he is released.

It would be easy to depict the Mandela story one of simple heroism, focussing on Mandela’s indisputable achievements in obtaining justice for the millions of people fighting Apartheid, but Justin Chadwick’s film chooses to approach its subject to show us the man, his life and his loves set against the horror of the Apartheid regime. The film isn’t overly reverential and as such it feels honest. Mandela, like any other human, had his faults – he was unfaithful to his first wife and quite the womaniser in his younger days. However, the focus is on his story as a campaigner for justice, and it is also one that acknowledges the support of his second wife, Winnie, ensuring that the film is one that is, at its heart, a story of love and family set amidst a world of oppression. Winnie had such an important role in the movement and suffered terribly at the hands of the government, being arrested and detained while their daughters were still very young girls. Mandela’s love for his family is shown in a moving sequences when his daughter is finally granted a brief prison visit to meet the father she cannot remember. This gives a very human element to the story but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does not balk at depicting scenes of violence or oppression when necessary, and it is never gratuitous in its depiction of the horror of Sharpeville or the savagery of necklacing.

Overall this is an informative but also engaging portrayal of one of the most important figures in the world of modern politics. It is nicely shot, with impressively staged scenes of large crowds contrasting with the confinement of prison life. With tremendous performances from its leads, particularly from Elba who has to portray one of the world’s most famous men over a story spanning several decades, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is highly recommended.