Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

MANDELA:  LONG WALK TO FREEDOM             B            
Great Britain  South Africa  (139 mi)  2013 d:  Justin Chadwick      Official Site

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized.  But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.        —Nelson Mandela, in a speech before the sentencing court, 1964

This is another Harvey Weinstein project, obtaining the rights to Nelson Mandela’s 700-page memoirs written in 1995, Long Walk to Freedom, then hiring a white British screenwriter, William Nicholson, known for writing GLADIATOR (2000) and LES MISÉRABLES (2012), to adapt it for film, and another white British television director, Justin Chadwick, to direct the movie.  Unfortunately, the film only scratches the surface, and despite the overall length, skims over his life without much scrutiny, playing out more like a movie made for the History Channel.  What cannot be denied, however, is the enormously appealing story of Mandela himself, played with a great deal of authority by black British actor Idris Elba, where the film benefits from a release coming just weeks after the monumental 95-year old figure died in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 5, 2013.  Had the film gone into greater detail and actually explored his life with more depth and complexity, it would have been an invaluable historical portrait.  Instead it’s an overly pious film that reveres its subject to such an extent that he becomes a saintly figure.  South African producer Anant Singh, who was himself an ardent apartheid activist, has been trying to make this film for over 16 years, but makes the mistake of attempting to cover half a century of his nation’s history through the life of one single man.  By the time the film opens, he’s already an established lawyer with a thriving practice in Johannesburg, but next to nothing is known about how he came to assume this esteemed position, quite rare for a black man in a racially segregated society that routinely denies career advancement for blacks.  While he lives with his wife Evelyn (Terry Pheto) and small children in a crowded black township, he practices in white courts before white judges where whites providing testimony aren’t used to being questioned or cross-examined by blacks about the accuracy of their testimony, sending some into a shock of racial indignation, where for racial reasons the judge allows these individuals to answer directly to the judge instead of having to speak to the questioning attorney. 

Initially Mandela is seen as a large physical presence, one who boxes in his spare time, adores his wife and children, and maintains a close relationship to his community, though he also has a reputation as something of a womanizer.  When the leaders of the African National Congress come calling, a non-violent, anti-apartheid movement that aligns themselves with the communist party to address the rights of black South Africans through mass demonstrations, boycotts, and protests, they impress him with their effectiveness in channeling social injustice into a mobilized defiance against the government, as Mandela is a believer that lone actions are largely ineffective, but when groups work together around common principles, this gets the attention of the government.  Eventually he joins the party and becomes one of their leading speakers, where he’s especially effective in stirring crowds into action.  The government’s response is to send military tanks and police forces into the black townships, effectively turning their neighborhoods into a segregated police state, where in response the international community initiates an arms and trade embargo against the apartheid government, which is seen as increasingly repressive and brutally violent.  These sanctions isolate South Africa from the rest of the world, placing them on notice.  Perhaps the one single event with the most significance is the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when thousands of demonstrators burn their identity cards that they are legally required to carry in a sign of protest, demanding they be arrested to fill the jail cells, as police routinely check these “passes” as a means of harassing black citizens, often hauling anyone without their passes off to prison.  On this date, however, they open fire on unarmed citizens, killing 69 people, including many children, almost all of them in the back as they attempted to flee the scene.     

Mandela loses his wife Evelyn to the cause, as she needs a man who will be at home with his children, not one continually absent who swears his allegiance to the ANC, which alters their political tactics after the incident, turning to violence to achieve their goals, leading a campaign of targeted bombings of police stations, refusing to passively stand by and allow black citizens to be murdered by police without a response.  Mandela meets and marries Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who in real life is barely out of her teens, where there is an 18-year age difference, yet it is the romance of his life, as both share the same political dream.  Their lives are split when Mandela and the ANC leaders are forced to go underground, where they are eventually arrested and sentenced in 1964 to spend the rest of their lives at hard labor on the Robben Island prison, a lime quarry where inmates spend their days breaking rocks down into gravel, both under a blazing hot sun, but also a constant assault of racial invectives by the white prison guards.  Mandela is only allowed one letter every 6 months, with language censored by the guards, and no children visits until they reach age 16.  At the time, Mandela’s oldest daughter was only 5.  Winnie Mandela attempts to resume the political figurehead of her husband and is the object of repeated arrests, and most likely sexual assaults, including 18 months in solitary confinement, where she only grows more fiercely defiant.  Winnie’s story is a bit more complicated, as to fill the void of the ANC leadership’s incarceration, there is tremendous pressure for her to exert leadership, becoming the face of the anti-apartheid movement around the world, and she thrives on the power, becoming intoxicated with the belief she is invincible, that she is the people’s champion, growing more hateful towards the white government, resorting to increasingly violent methods, even ordering the deaths of perceived collaborators, reprehensible actions that eventually separate her from her husband. 

Mandela’s vision of leadership evolves during his 27 years in prison, amazingly showing no malice towards his oppressors, becoming one of the great figures of our time, directing his attention not only to his release but to obtaining the democratic goal of one man, one vote, where he eventually becomes the first freely elected black President of South Africa (1994–1999).  While the overly conventional film arouses heroic sentiment through a soaring score, one might have appreciated greater examination of historical events, as extraordinary lives do not necessarily equate to extraordinary films, where the unique opportunity to film the memoirs of such a great historical figure deserves better, requiring greater depth and creativity.  The international sanctions, for instance, are all but ignored, which helped weaken the nation’s economy, as is the increasing radicalization of young South Africans, failing to mention a split in the anti-apartheid movement that only widens after Mandela is released from prison, when suddenly, without providing context, blacks are killing blacks in the townships.  There is little mention of the political challenges he faced to heal this divide, and barely touches upon the complexities of implementing a policy of national reconciliation.  Despite all the critical acclaim surrounding the punishing pre-Civil War film 12 Years a Slave (2013), the literary source material for this film is far more appealing, as Mandela is such a uniquely compelling figure in history, where Idris Elba adds a commanding presence to the role, though his ANC associates are almost entirely non-existent, while Naomie Harris becomes little more than a brooding caricature by the end.  Much like Harvey Weinstein’s Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013), this film tries to cram too much into a single film, glossing over the historical profundities of the moment, while the definitive works tend to remain more extended versions of Carlos – made for French TV (2010), a film divided into 3-parts, the extended made-for-television cut of THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), or the 2-part MESRINE (2008) or CHE (2008).  Better South African films are Gavin Hood’s use of searing realism in his superb TSOTSI (2005), an eloquent voice of protest during the apartheid era, filmed in the shantytowns of Soweto and Johannesburg, or even Australian Phillip Noyce’s CATCH A FIRE (2006), a more mainstream film shot on actual locations and based on real events, following the early years of a budding anti-apartheid activist, where he and his family suffer a relentless series of assaults by the police, which only radicalizes his life in an attempt to finally provide meaning and purpose fighting against the prevailing system of apartheid. 

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