The Great Man theory of history has long been a controversial one: is history shaped by exceptional men who enact change through sheer force of will, or is it the result of larger forces, like class, economics and technological progress?
Cinema is an art form that glorifies the heroic individual over the collective — except, maybe, Robert Altman films — and “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” is no exception. Yet even though the Great Man is a trope in films, it’s hard to imagine South Africa today without the figure of Nelson Mandela. He was the one man who could envision a clear path away from the racial segregation of apartheid to reconciliation between black and white. Without him, change would no doubt have been bloodier.
Justin Chadwick’s film is regrettably dry, released in the wake of Mandela’s death last year, at age 95. It’s more monument than movie but it does sketch out the basic facts of his life: how the young and idealistic lawyer was radicalized by the brutality of the white police and the bias of their courts; how he joined the African National Congress (ANC); how their campaign of peaceful resistance eventually turned to violence and bombings; and how he spent 27 years of his life in prison, only being released in 1990 when the de Klerk government was desperate to find a leader they could bargain with as chaos grew in the streets and economic sanctions hit hard.
It’s your typical event-driven biopic, emphasizing Mandela’s integrity and determination almost to the point of hagiography. The more interesting part is the story of Mandela (played by Idris Elba from “The Wire”) and his young second wife, Winnie, played by Naomie Harris (“Skyfall”). The pair do an excellent job at contrasting how injustice can shape a person for better or worse.
Despite rotting in jail for years and suffering at the hands of white prison guards, Mandela grows to hate not whites but all forms of racism and violence, to the point that he becomes a powerful moral voice against them — even when he’s couching his rhetoric in terms of black-on-white payback.
Winnie, torn away from her two children and sentenced to 16 months of solitary confinement, becomes consumed with rage and a desire for revenge. This divergence eventually drives the couple apart, and Elba’s performance is subtle enough that we sense he knows, on some level, that it was his fault — his choice to enter into politics made his wife like this.
Chadwick cheats a little at the end, though, fading to the credits as a stirring U2 anthem swells and Mandela is sworn in as president before the cheering throng of his people. The film ignores the post-revolutionary letdown in a way that some other political films, like “Che” or “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” do not. Mandela’s election brought change, but not nearly enough: by the late ’90s, AIDS, white flight, entrenched poverty and an out-of-control crime rate saw the country split again, with the economic haves living in communities surrounded by gates separating them from the have-nots.