Monday, 30 December 2013

Long Walk to Freedom: the 'powerfully moving' story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela

An ambitious movie featuring towering figures, The Long Walk to Freedom attains success on many levels. Cinematically, it puts South Africa on the map in a way it has not been before. It conveys momentous and background happenings in our turbulent and painful history in interesting and powerful ways.
The movie has also generated a great deal of discussion. Even though not everyone agrees with the lines taken in the movie, it reflects a boldness of choice on the part of the director. How to sketch processes that cover a vast period of time; how to present a colossal historical figure; how to represent complex and often fraught social change processes? Director Justin Chadwick chose to make the Nelson-Winnie love story a central theme and the driving force of the movie. From certain vantage points, this strategy can be criticised, but it makes The Long Walk to Freedom (LWTF) accessible and enjoyable to a very wide audience.
In the make-or-break role of Mandela, Idris Elba’s performance helps the movie (in significant ways) to crack it. He succeeds admirably in conveying the moods, temperament and presence of Mandela in his middle and later years. In a documentary on the making of the movie, Chadwick says he asked the actors to jettison any worries about accents and copy-cat resemblance to the figure they were playing; instead, they were directed to focus on discovering and transmitting the essence of the characters they played. This helped the lead actors to dilute the sense of intimidation they felt at having to play the ‘huge’ figures of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
The success of this approach shows in the strength of Elba’s performance. Given Mandela’s penchant for reinventing himself, Elba may well have felt like he was being called on to play several distinctive characters in the same movie. He excels as he interprets a Mandela that transforms from new rural arrival to the city, to suave lawyer, to bearded pimpernel, to reflective prisoner.
Similarly, Noami Harris takes hold of her Winnie role and gives a star performance. She walks the road with Winnie as the latter changes from “very young” wife to leader and ‘voice of resistance’ during times of intensified oppression and brutal repression  as Winnie travels from innocence to angry leader standing tall on the South African stage.
The movie carefully creates the atmosphere and idioms of the different time periods. It is clear that for producer Anant Singh and Chadwick, situation and context matter very much. But they are under pressure – because of the sweep of the movie, they sometimes have to establish the setting very quickly, through the use of a relatively few shots and dialogue. Despite what they achieve – and at several key points the visual articulation is superlative – there are a few gaps or missteps. The Sharpeville segment is awkward and cryptic. “Sharpeville” and the issue of pass laws, let alone the role of PAC, are barely introduced before the gunshots go off and the camera jumps to narrate the international reaction. Also, the movie skips over the early years and the rural world in which Madiba grew up. Chadwick does take the viewer back to Qunu/ Mvezo area at several points in the movie, but many viewers may still miss the significance of the role of rural Eastern Cape played in the making of Mandela.
The movie’s excellent portrayal of Winnie Mandela is one of its powerful features. It tells her story, effectively highlighting her largely undervalued contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. The movie shows her brutalisation and radicalisation – and helps us understand her role and position in South Africa today.
On the positive side, the movie is no sugar coating and, despite producer Singh working in close consultation with key family members and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, cannot be said to be politically correct.or providing a sanitised perspective. Viewers are shown the hard edge of resistance and struggle. As activists take up the cudgels for justice, children and family members pay a high price. Mistakes happen and comrades die due to human error when planting home-made bombs. The movie also showed the lax security arrangements that prevailed at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia – the easy comings and goings of random people that contrasted with measures such as the careful disguises for Mandela and the ultra-secret locations for the revolutionary leader's media interviews.
The Long Walk to Freedom foregrounds the remarkable strengths as well as the ‘warts’ of the main characters. It is about heroes, but about flawed heroes. The movie shows how Mandela relied on the advice and insights of senior comrades, and how this mentorship helped minimise the possible negative impacts of his shortcomings. When Mandela said, as he often did, that other leaders should share the credit for success in the anti-apartheid struggle, many people think he is referring to the execution of courageous actions. But he is also referring, directly, to others' contribution to shaping him: to the fact that key comrades helped to balance his thinking and temper his impetuousness. In this regard, the character of Walter Sisulu in LWTF should not only be read literally; it is emblematic of all the key leaders, including Oliver Tambo, who honed Nelson Mandela.    
LWTF lifts the veil on Mandela’s promiscuity as he enjoyed the buzz of Johannesburg in the forties and fifties. It also conveys that, even though they had become incompatible, he could have handled his split from his first wife Evelyn with a great deal more sensitivity. Reading between the lines, it was only when he was in prison that he got a chance to think properly about the burdens he placed on his young wife, not just when he went to prison but when he disappeared from family life and went underground. In this regard, author Du Preez Bezrop argues that Mandela simply informed Winnie of major changes in his life; that the young Mandela “appeared to lack the skills needed to comfort his loved ones when they needed assurance”.
LWTF gives a sympathetic interpretation of Winnie Mandela. But it does not shy away from the shadow side associated with her. It shows how ‘necklacing’ evolved and was popularised, and proposes that Winnie Mandela had a central role in this evolution. In this regard, necklacing was an angry reaction; but little thought was given to the wider chain of human destructiveness (and self-destruction) that would be unleashed. The ‘flawed heroes’ angle endows the movie with a particular grittiness and provokes deep reflection about the qualities and requirements of leadership, especially in repressive and violent times.
It seems that most South Africans who have seen LWTF loved the experience. At the same time, in social media emanating from South Africa, a small but significant number of people complain about the accents of the lead actors; others fume about insufficient acknowledgement of the ANC’s collective leadership. Yet others highlight some factual inaccuracies as compared to historical records. Of course, it is important to remember that a film is a dramatisation (unlike a documentary); the information it contains has to be cross-referenced with other data that forms part of the archive.
Writing on Twitter, Author Zakes Mda says he was disappointed, most likely because his expectations of the movie were too high. Using the same medium, Eusebius McKaiser wonders how people can rave about LWTF, given that it contains so many narrative inaccuracies. For Mfundi Vundla, writing in a newspaper column, LWTF erred in trying to cover too large a time-period. It would have had more depth, he argues, if it focused on, say, a ten year period. Arguing that a “biopic on an iconic figure” is not the only way to go in capturing the past, he calls for local movie-makers like himself to be given a chance to give their version of the “liberation narrative”.
I believe LWTF should be celebrated. Though not perfect, it is a brilliant effort. Aside from its high production values, LWTF presents the human side of Nelson Mandela alongside the great achievements and extraordinary leadership.  In a move that has strong gender-equity implications, it further provides a compelling re-reading of Winnie Mandela, calling for greater appreciation of her sacrifice and courage.  
The LWTF is not without shortcomings. But, despite these, Long Walk To Freedom is impressive and powerfully moving - a film that everyone should try to see.

Frank Meintjies