Justin Chadwick’s Long Walk to Freedom is the life story of Nelson Mandela, based on Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, from his youth to his ascension to political power in South Africa, which marked the defeat of that country’s regime of apartheid. Although Mandela is clearly the hero of the film, he is not treated with somber reverence. Idris Elba (The Wire and Prometheus) delivers a fine performance as Nelson, a performance matched by that of Naomie Harris in the role of Winnie Mandela. The film’s pace is riveting, its depiction of human conflict (personal and political) compelling, and its portrayal of courage, forgiveness, and hope inspiring.
Mandela’s autobiography runs some 600 pages and treats, often in minute detail, every stage in Mandela’s life. Encompassing all these stages in a film that runs just under two and a half hours is a daunting task. The film Invictus, by contrast, which focuses on one episode during Mandela’s presidency, is almost as long. But Long Walk manages to do what Invictus, with its saintly portrayal of Mandela and its avoidance of anything controversial, does not. It gives us a complex, flesh-and-blood human being. The film does not shrink from the implications of political violence or from the less savory aspects of Mandela’s personal life. It depicts his training in North Africa in the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Especially early in his adult life, Mandela is vain, unfaithful to his wife, and somewhat indifferent to his own family. Elba’s Mandela is a flawed human being who nonetheless alters the direction of history through his unflagging commitment to the common good of his people and his nation.
Still, the length of the film necessitates compression and omission. Mandela’s gradual movement from private to public life, his realization that he was called to be involved in organized protests, crystallizes in a single scene in which he witnesses government violence against a black youth. His transition from non-violent protest to the advocacy of violent resistance is also depicted rather abruptly. The film does manage to make Mandela’s case for the use of violence: Non-violence had not only not minimized government oppression but had been accompanied by an increase in government-mandated violence, to the point where the government could be said to have declared war on its own people.
Less striking than what the film omits from the book is what it adds to it. Winnie Mandela plays a much larger role in the film than she does in the book, where references to her are no more than sporadic. While the book mentions her imprisonment, it does not describe her treatment in prison. Nor does it dwell on her radicalized commitment to the use of violence, not only against whites but also against blacks designated as traitors to the cause. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Winnie guilty of gross violation of human rights, including the orchestration of kidnapping, torture, and murder. Although she is not seen directly ordering murder, there is a chilling scene in which she urges her followers to reject compromise and use the tools at their disposal (rocks, tires, petrol) to punish traitors. The scene is followed by a harrowing depiction of the use of the infamous “necklace” — the placing of an ignited tire full of gasoline around the neck of a victim.
The film depicts Nelson and Winnie’s early attraction and their separate paths once Nelson is incarcerated. Unable to overcome the emotional distance created by so many years apart and their even deeper ideological divide, they separate and eventually divorce. In one of their last meetings, they argue vehemently over violence. Nelson insists the “necklaces must stop.”
On the issue of what is the best means to a just and lasting peace, the film clearly sides with Nelson against Winnie. Yet the film also attempts to rehabilitate Winnie, at least in the sense that it tries to give some sort of causal account of her embrace of torture and murder. While Nelson spends a much longer time in prison, he never undergoes the sort of physical and mental abuse that Winnie is portrayed as receiving. Moreover, it is Winnie who witnesses the beating and murder of friends and family members. The film suggests that, whatever Winnie does later, the government made her do it.
Unlike many of his colleagues, and especially unlike Winnie, Nelson never becomes addicted to violence or vengeance. His use of violence is temporary and tactical. As power is about to be wrested from the white ruling class, Mandela warns his people against adopting the very behavior and attitudes of their oppressors. And he is always prudent, noting, “We can’t win a war but can win an election.”
Mandela’s life is a counter to the suggestion, common not just among Marxists but even among ordinary, non-ideological historians, that universal, impersonal forces, rather than individual thought and action, shape history. In fact, the film tends to overemphasize Mandela as an individual leader. Many of his closest allies never appear in the film, and those who do are rarely named. Present in the film and given full credit for his role in the change in government, however, is F. W. de Klerk (sympathetically played by Gys de Villiers), the last president of apartheid-era South Africa and Mandela’s final and most important collaborator.
The film captures the most important truths about Mandela’s leadership. While he kept a single political goal in mind (the end of apartheid and the implementation of a one-man, one-vote system), he had a remarkable ability to shift course as circumstances dictated. This is evident not just in his shift from non-violent protest to violent sabotage; it is even more palpable in his holding the threat of violence against the government until the approval of one-man, one-vote, then repudiating violence as soon as the goal had been reached. The two stages required that he oppose first the government and then his own people, who had become so inured to violence that they deemed any compromise to be a confession of weakness and defeat.
Near the end of the film, as the country slips into chaos, Mandela gives a televised speech in which he tells his own people that they are wrong to cling to violence and reject a negotiated settlement. The job of a leader, he proclaims, is to correct his followers when they are in error. That task is one rarely embraced by political leaders, but it was the last and crucial stage in Mandela’s rare political achievement: arresting the otherwise unending cycle of vengeful violence into which so many countries afflicted with civil war and violent revolution have remained trapped.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.