It seems that the production of a biopic is the sign for whoever it is about to pass on. Both the American films Ray and Walk the Line were released shortly before the deaths of, respectively, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. The same night Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom had its premier was also the same night that Nelson Mandela passed away. The two-minute silence that followed the announcement of his passing at the premier in London ended up being far more respectful than anything presented in Long Walk to Freedom.
Ray and Walk the Line both benefited from productions that had close relationships with the people they were intended to present. Johnny Cash was so invested in his that he insisted on meeting the person who was cast as him, eventually Joaquin Phoenix, to give him his blessing before the project commenced. Long Walk to Freedom did not have such a luxury and instead of relying on a close relationship with the titular focus of the film instead relied on a schoolboy's recitation of the events that guided Mandela from his days as a professor, to the prison he spent years occupying, before finally becoming President of South Africa.
A schoolboy's approach also helps explain the undue focus to the grandstanding speeches and explosions that surely punctuated the conflicted Mandela's life, but have little to do with the man. Long Walk to Freedom treats Mandela's parabolic rise as destiny and denies Mandela agency in his own story, instead treating him as an impassioned narrator to the events that surround him. This doesn't mean that Long Walk to Freedom should have focused on the warts of Mandela's life, but treating his story as a successive series of set pieces means that this could have happened to anyone. If that's the case, why make the biopic at all?
The answer is depressingly straightforward - Mandela's life is a story worth telling and there was a creative staff completely inappropriate to the task given the job. Look at the production team of Long Walk to Freedom and you see a joint collection of British and South African professionals. Outside of the principal cast you will see little influence from the people who would have had experience in what happened during Apartheid and those who lived through it. Instead it is people who have done period productions of Brideshead Revisited, worked on lavish historical dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the one South African producer who has spent his career making villainous witch doctors and pro Obama propaganda films.
What this means for the film is that when Mandela (Idris Elba) speaks of revolution and the purpose of law we see Elba floundering to attach emotion to events that the movie does not depict. The film is like a travelogue of South Africa instead of a progression through the various locales that Mandela spent his time. There are gorgeous, wide-framed shots of the South African plains, winding paths to follow in the universities and buildings that litter the landscape, and triumphant helicopter shots of the crowds who gather in support of Mandela. The problem is that the scenes that give context to what Mandela was fighting for have the same kind of grandeur and end up divorcing themselves of the desperate climate that Apartheid took place in.
The worst of these scenes is when a group of unarmed protestors is shot outside of a government facility. Everything is cleanly presented, little chaos, and when the incident is over we are shown black and white photos that bear a striking resemblance to the American Kent State Massacre. This is a terrible parallel, instead of letting the South African experience speak for itself to instead recall other acts of violence. The experience of Apartheid is not the focus of the film, and while it did not necessarily need to be, shaping the images of Mandela's struggle in such distinctly American terms from this largely British production staff is misguided and best and extremely disrespectful at the worst.
Hitting the highlights and placing everything in images both broad and sanitized loses both the power of Mandela's life as well as the people surrounding him. We end up with more character disconnects like his legion of girlfriends, including the mother of his children, who end up unnamed posts lining his life and the various compatriots who fare little better. Is the point of this to show that great people have unintended fallout from their actions? A suggestion is not enough, either the film needed to go full-barrel with its presentation of a heroic Mandela and cut out the pain he caused the people in his life, or the film needed to be entirely different. Even Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who served a considerable role in ending Apartheid, is relegated to yet another post as her molestation by the guards is played just long enough to hear her moan before going back to Mandela's struggle with getting prison pants. That's not empathizing, that's fetishizing.
A trend that, disappointingly, continues into the performances. Idris Elba is one of the finest actors working today and, while I wish it was in a different venue, he is gathering more steam in Pacific Rim and the Thor films. So it comes as another crushing disappointment that his Mandela is terrible. He labors so deliberately to make himself a replica of the man instead of tapping into an aspect of Mandela to fuel his performance. But what's strange is that he is imitating the old, grayed Mandela we are familiar with so it becomes terribly awkward when young Mandela is moving and speaking with the stiff confidence of the old.
But if Elba's performance is bad, it is because it is calibrated to the tune of a film that is not interested in the finer details of Mandela's life. If the creative team's sanitized approach was pushed to the absolute limit then it could have been a parody of biopic films. Still, we're already got Walk Hard, and Nelson Mandela deserved better. What I'm left with reminds me of Spike Lee's struggle to make Malcolm X and John Singleton's musing about how more people in a specific culture need to be involved in the production of films about their culture. In the case of Long Walk to Freedom it's as though they were told to keep the pretty bits about South Africa, and skim the rest - missing the point of Mandela's life and Apartheid in the process.
Directed by Justin Chadwick.
Screenplay written by William Nicholson.
Starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.