During my first year at Rhodes University, in South Africa, “Free Mandela” stickers materialized on every door of my residence. One wit altered numerous stickers to read: ‘One Free Mandela with every res meal’ to reflect their disgust of our hostel slop, but also to impugn the heroic stature of the imprisoned ANC leader. The Mandela movie succeeds in capturing these sorts of conflicting attitudes of South Africans in the 80’s; Mandela the violent terrorist vs respected political prisoner, #46664. And Idris Elba succeeds in capturing the spirit of one of the most famous men on the planet through nuanced gesture and a baritone with perfect inflections and accent, while Naomi Harris as Winnie, Mandela’s second wife, is as chillingly shrill and hostile as she was in real life.
In 1976, I remember seeing a grainy black and white newspaper picture of a boy who was shot during the Soweto Riots. Years later, his name would become famous as Hector Peterson, a symbol to those rallying the youth to protest against Apartheid. These events, together with others of significance – like the Rivonia Treason Trial that condemned Mandela and his cohorts to Robben Island – are presented with attention to detail in terms of costuming and props, and historically accurate facts. However, there were scenes during the biopic when I wondered whether viewers who do not have my insider’s knowledge of events, would be able to ‘connect the dots’, as the film moves at quite a fast pace. Despite the rapidity with which scriptwriter William Nicholson covers the decades, director Justin Chadwick did not manage to pare it down to two hours. Is it a sad indictment on us, as moviegoers, that producer Anant Singh did not think that we would support two Mandela movies if he spilt the autobiography into two parts?
The 157 minute running time indulges some exquisite cinematography, especially in the scenes reflecting Madiba’s rural roots. The rolling hills of the Transkei, and the big-sky sunset colours, contrast effectively with a bustle and grime steadicam portrayal of young Nelson’s Johannesburg years. Filming was done entirely in South Africa and the flat, African light combined with a handheld camera are used in scenes, such as the Sharpeville segment, where raw emotion crackles. This is not a dry documentary-style portrayal of Mandela and the era he inhabited, it is quality film-making.
Should you see this film? Most definitely. Yet many will decide not to, for fear that it will be a deification of a man, who though brave and forgiving, was flawed; others will fear having to endure a protracted docu-drama. It is a bit of all of these things, yet it is also more than that. It is a film that demonstrates that there is hope to resolve even the most intractable conflicts. The final voiceover reminds us: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”