To write about a film which is a biopic on one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, having deep political undertones is kind of tough especially when one’s knowledge of the apartheid struggle is limited to Wikipedia. Nelson Mandela was a complex political and social personality. The film is based upon his autobiography of the same name. And the book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ is often criticized. There are different version of events which Mandela writes in his autobiography. Mandela’s political views changed from time to time, from all native front against apartheid to a Gandhian non violent struggle to ultra communist movement to reconciliation and peaceful coexistence with erstwhile oppressive and racist regime. His autobiography was written in the context of the last phase of anti apartheid struggle and hence it downplays his earlier controversial political stance. And it is in a way an appropriate autobiography of a statesman of his stature. But what remains unchanged in his political thoughts is majority ruling the people i.e the Government to belong to the majority among the people of South Africa. The film is a strict adaptation of the book, no other references were incorporated.
The film starts with Rolihlahla becoming Dalibunga. Rolihlahla means troublemaker in Xhosa, a name given to Mandela by his father. Dalibunga means creator or founder of advice. It was the name was given to Mandela after the Thembu tribe’s circumcision ritual, which marks his transition of boy to man. The scene is visually rich as it shows all naked and white painted Thembu tribesmen jumping into the river, following which Mandela pops his head out from the water. The film uses the scene many times in the narrative. Especially when Mandela is jailed in Robben island and after working in lime quarry he gets back and showers himself, we cut back to the Thembu ritual scene and it is quite symbolic.The film basically portrays two prominent stages of Mandela’s life. The one before his Rivonia Trial and second after it. And cutting back to the Thembu ritual scene marks that transition. That is Mandela becoming ‘creator and founder of advice’ to National Reconciliation from his initial ‘MK’ trouble-making days.MK is abbreviation for Umkhonto we Sizwe meaning Spear of the Nation, armed violent wing of ANC African National Congress.
The film starts haphazardly with too many events squeezed in short time. Mandela’s law practice, his first marriage, his debates with Walter Sisulu and other ANC members and infidelity with his wife.The turning point is when one of his acquaintances is beaten to death by the police. And the judge doesn’t even consider the trial despite medical evidence. It marks his participation in “Boycott the buses’ campaign organized by Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgorge)and other members of the ANC. Post this we see his subsequent participation in political activity and then police arrest which breaks his marriage. There is a scene where Mandela (Idris Elba) visits his mother’s home. She reprimands him about his divorce but Mandela remains adamant to continue his political fight. And by this time the film starts to settle and we get more emotionally attached with the character and the events. Introduction of Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) also adds some romance. The political struggle intensifies with openly racists National Party coming to power. They began practicing more aggressive racial segregation. And then what follows is the Sharpeville Massacre, something like South Africa’s equivalent to India’s Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
To oppose the new legislation which was aimed at promoting even more apartheid and segregation, 5000 to 6000 people gathered at Sharpeville. They protested by burning their passbooks. Fighter jets were used to scare them and it sparked unrest among the crowd. And finally the Police went on to fire at the crowd. And it results into the killing of 67 people and Nation wide outrage. It questions Mahatma Gandhi inspired non violent methods. Madiba which is Nelson Mandela’s clan name is shown burning his pass book too. It is the beginning of the shunning of non- violence and embracing more radical approach. And this is how MK comes into existence. It is almost similar to our own Bhagat Singh. Mandela, Sisulu and others go underground and start sabotage activities.
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.-Nelson Mandela
And by this point the film completely grips you. It is may be because of the striking similarities between our own freedom struggle. Mandela comes across as more of Bhagat Singh or Tilak rather than Gandhi. And later his arrests and Rivonia Trial furthers his ‘BhagatSinghsque’ image. Only difference is the verdict in the trial. The South African judge purposefully denies them death sentence, not wanting to make them martyrs which otherwise could provoke similar response from others. Mandela is then sent to the infamous Robben island, categorized as D grade prisoner. Mandela ends up spending a total of 27 years in prison. And that is the challenging part of the film where the filmmakers excels. There is a parallel track of Winnie Mandela’s, where we see that she is regularly arrested and tortured. Even a prison guard taunts Mandela about her and he almost looses his cool. At the same time Mandela continues his demand to be treated as political prisoner but step by step. And Winnie continues to fight. She becomes more and more involved in armed struggle. It is due to her efforts that Mandela remained in the people’s memory all the time, Nationally and Internationally. What is shown briefly is probably the most important turn of the events in South African anti apartheid struggle. First is the rise of Steve Biko and the ultra Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and second is the UN sanctions on South Africa. South African government is now surrounded by massive violent outburst at home and political embargo worldwide. It soon becomes a civil war like situation.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
― Nelson Mandela
And the only hope is Mandela. That’s where we see a completely different Mandela, with his non compromising attitude of majority rule but at the same time with favoring racial reconciliation. It was a delicate situation. Now whites becomes the target. There are some archival footage shown in the film which shows a white woman and man beaten up by the mob. There is scene which shows violent fight between two different nationalist black groups. South African Government’s fear drives them to negotiate with Mandela. And the discussion that follows is a master class in negotiations. That’s where we really see the greatness of Mandela. going against colleague, wife Winnie and more radical groups as he starts negotiating with the government. The biggest achievement is the concept of National reconciliation and then convincing the whole Nation to drop arms and talk peace. After so many years of apartheid and oppression, South Africans were smelling blood. They were full of revenge. Whites were scared. Even though they had armed forces, it was too difficult to control the majority. They were unwilling to hand power, mainly because they feared backlash. At such times asking people to forgive and reconcile is Mandela’s greatest achievement. It is collectively an achievement of Homo Sapiens species, who have natural tendency of revenge. It is a step towards future politics, where vengeance and hatred has no place. And the film captures these emotions perfectly. I think it is a must watch film only because of the portrayal of Mandela’s effort of reconciliation. It is very inspiring and uplifting. And it is the main message of the film. It is already a 2 and half hour film which is standard duration for a biographical film. There could have been more detailing. But I think the intensity of the message could have been lost. The film is made specially with global audience in mind. And hence I don’t think it should have been any longer
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
― Nelson Mandela
The cinematography is awesome. It captures wide African plains and re creates old era of apartheid beautifully.The acting is outstanding. Idris Alba is perfectly cast. To be very frank the film belongs to him. It is one of the best motion pictures performances that you can get to see these days. Naomie Harris’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela is equally intense. Rest of the cast is equally good. As the film is based on Madiba’s biography, it sticks with him. No other character apart from Winnie actually stands out. At the end it is a must watch film for all those who think of themselves as politically conscious. Even otherwise it may raise your political awareness, as it just did to me. It is not just a biographical film of a great man of our times, it is an excellent cinematic experience.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
― Nelson Mandela