Politically incorrect film reviews – Mandela: the long walk to freedom

Robert Henderson

Main cast Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu

Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada

Zolani Mkiva as Raymond Mhlaba

Simo Mogwaza as Andrew Mlangeni

Fana Mokoena as Govan Mbeki

Thapelo Mokoena as Elias Motsoaledi

Jamie Bartlett as James Gregory

Deon Lotz as Kobie Coetzee

Terry Pheto as Evelyn Mase

Dir: Justin Chadwick;

Cert 12A, 146 min

There are two films currently on release with a very high pc approbation quotient: 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: a long walk to freedom.  The latter  is a better film simply as a film, both because it had a male lead who imposes himself on the film and because it possesses something resembling a plot rather than a repetitive  series of  scenes of brutality and contempt being inflicted by whites on blacks.  But  being superior to 12 Years a Slave does not make it a good film let alone a great one and this Mandela biopic has serious flaws.

There are two ways to swatch a biopic: simply as a drama without worrying about its verisimilitude or to judge it as one would a documentary. This film   fails on both counts. As a drama it is too fragmented and lacking in action  to maintain  tension.  It is also  handicapped because  it  is difficult to view it as simply a drama when the person and events for which they are noted are so recent. Inevitably, it will be seen as a de facto documentary, but it fails to deserve that name because it is profoundly dishonest in its reporting of the facts.  More on that later.

The film starts  with two  considerable  dramatic disadvantages: the very long  period which it covers – even Mandela’s adulthood in the period covered by the film stretches over  more than 50 years –   made the film inescapably but unduly episodic  and the  27 years he spent in prison was a setting where there is limited scope to show Mandela doing very much.  The large cast also works  against character development other than that of Mandela. Even the depiction of Winnie Mandela is distinctly one-dimensional. There is also the problem of representing her as an irresistible beauty. She was not that even when young and the use of the considerably better looking Naomi Harris to represent her is a form of dishonesty because a good looking actress exhorting violence   will have a much less toxic effect  than a rather plain woman doing so.

Idris Elba as Mandela gives a strong performance judged simply as a character, but because of the inevitable documentary element his appearance does  present problems.  Because everyone knows what Mandela looked like and sounded like, it is difficult to shed the image of the real Mandela in the mind’s eye while watching Elba who  has no real facial similarity to the young Mandela, a fact made ever more obvious as their looks diverged with Mandela’s ageing in the film. By the time the real Mandela emerged from prison and was before the world’s cameras, his face had developed a curious Chinese look  and been drained of its robustness. All that was done, and perhaps all that could  done to age Elba, was to give him greying hair.

Then there was a question of physique and vitality.  Elba is a powerfully built man and although Mandela was no 7-stone weakling as a young man,  he was still substantially shorter (6’0” against Elba’s 6’3”) and much less heavily muscled than Elba.  That did  not matter so much in the scenes of Mandela’s youth, but it became ever more problematical as Mandela aged. By the time the scenes of  Mandela’s release arrived  Elba was still a hulking figure whereas the real Mandela at that age had become a rather physically frail figure.

The final problem of impersonation was that Elba caught Mandela’s voice as we know it from his time after his release quite well, but that did mean he was using  the voice of  Mandela as an old man throughout the film. (I did try to find a recording of Mandela  pre-imprisonment but was unable to do so).

But the main black mark against the film is that it is wilfully and widely dishonest. This turns it into nothing more than a propaganda vehicle.  The serious dishonesty consists of acts of omission. These are:

1. Mandela’s Marxism and membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) is  not mentioned, nor is  the heavy influence of Communists within the SACP.

2. The brutal behaviour of the ANC members to both those, both within and without the party,  who fell out of favour with the ANC leadership,  either as the result of personal quarrels or because they were judged to be disloyal. Even a pro-ANC account admits there were considerable abuses (http://www.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02167/04lv02264/05lv02303/06lv02304/07lv02305/08lv02312.htm – see 6.3.3.2 onwards in particular).  This behaviour went unremarked.

3. Winnie Mandella’s glorying in the murder by torture that is “necklacing” is barely given a glance, with Mandela making a single reference to it in a scene with Winnie in which he simply says the necklacing must stop. There is precious little attention given to the practice in general. There  is one fleeting scene of someone being chased, caught, having  a tyre placed over his head, the tyre being soaked  with petrol and set alight.  The scene lasts a few seconds. There is no explanation of why the person is being murdered, who the person was and who was doing the killing. It was tokenism of the most extreme sort.

Winnie Mandela also had a nice line impersonal  intimidation and violence up to and including murder. She ran a bunch of thugs known as the Mandela Football team  and was convicted of  assault and kidnapping in 1991 after the death of ANC youth activist, Stompie Seipei Moeketsi.  The sentence was six years in prison initially but this was reduced to two years suspended on appeal.   There was no reference in the film  to either Stompie or her conviction. As for the Mandela Football Team, there was a  sentence or two in a scene when Mandela said the violence must stop – the same scene as the single reference to  necklacing by Mandela in  the film – but nothing else.  Mandela’s failure to condemn her behaviour for so long was represented as an understandable weakness of the heart rather than any indication of serious fault in Mandela.

4. The film runs to Mandela’s election to the Presidency in 1994. By that time he had shown a rather worrying fondness for unpleasant dictators such as Fidel Castro and Gaddafi. Such behaviour went unremarked.

5. Far too little  is made of Mandela’s womanising and the failure  of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase because of that and his placing of the ANC cause above his family.   There are a few rows, and one scene of what might be called domestic violence by Mandela, although that could be interpreted as self-defence, but the overall impression is that somehow the break-up was Mase’s fault, at least in part.  Nothing was said about the fact that Mandela left Mase to bring up three young children with precious little if any financial support from Mandela before he went into prison or the ANC after he was imprisoned.

Is this film  worth seeing? Certainly not on its own terms, for it is  not only dishonest but rather pedestrian.  Political animals may wish to see it to prime themselves on the extent that the politically correct myth  has overturned reality in the case of Mandela and how readily the mainstream film reviewers have bought into it.

 

NB Also published by the Quarterly Review in their new Perspectives film  section  – http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=2356

 

 

Advertisements
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: