Whatever else might be said of the well-meaning but disappointing biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, this is a case of a film whose release had accidentally impeccable timing. Just as the premiere screening was unfolding in New York, news arrived of the passing of the great South African leader and international symbol of liberation from oppressive social conditions — in his case, working against abolishing the appalling 20th-century horror story that was apartheid. On the downside, the very synchronicity of the movie’s timing somehow places more pressure on it. We wish it was much stronger and more befitting of its subject and less marred by Hollywood-ized slickness and the familiar, old biopic blahs.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has, as its main virtue, the function of telling the tale of Mandela (Idris Elba, nicely working the balance of quiet rage and inner peace) in broad strokes and filling in blanks of those only vaguely aware of his remarkable story, which included his 20-plus years in prison and a rise to the presidency. That story begins with his life as a lawyer in Johannesburg in 1942, defending blacks unjustly accused by members of the white minority in the country and tried by the rule of law in a country marked by dubious lawfulness. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, his former peaceful-protest stance turned toward a more “whatever means necessary” policy, rationalizing that “we no longer accept the authority of a state that makes war on its own people.”
Of course, the subplot-verging-on-parallel-plot in the Mandela story is his wife, Winnie (commandingly played by Naomie Harris), who raised their children during his prison time and was a more hard-line activist than her husband. Their differences of approach to the South African problem eventually drove them apart, as freedom fighters with different weapons in mind. Nelson’s weapons of choice were more diplomatic, insisting on the importance of peace and forgiveness. Radical notions, those.
While blessed with solid production values, good period-piece ambience suitable to the eras depicted, and reasonable enough narrative pacing, something is amiss in the film, including a strangely non-African, Hollywood-centric musical score and a final anthemic song by U2. Where is the beautiful, indigenous, and celebrated sound of South African music, especially in this stirring story of grand socio-political wrongs righted? Maybe they thought it would sell better in Peoria that way.