reviewed by Scotty Barnhart



The biopic was once considered a stuffy genre, peaking at the height of the Hollywood Studio System. The genre later devolved into made-for-TV movies, but experienced a strong rebirth during the 2000s, beginning with Erin Brokovich (2000). This year alone, for instance, we have seen acclaim for 12 Years a Slave (2013), 42 (2013), and The Butler (2013). Now, with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), we see the year’s fourth politically charged biopic about racism, with a black, male subject at the center. In Mandela, though, screenwriter William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick attempt to dramatize more than 60 years of Nelson Mandela’s extensive life in 151 minutes. As a result, the filmmakers merely skim several select moments of their subject’s life. Unlike 12 Years and The Butler—which simultaneously cover long stretches of time, while presenting well-developed characters—Mandela sacrifices depth for breadth.

Mandela is prefaced with a pair of Biblical epigraphs—in white font over black background—which were formerly used to justify apartheid in South Africa. The film presents an adolescent Mandela, ritualistically coming-of-age, washing away white tribal paint from his body, a symbolic microcosm of the rest of the film, which surveys Mandela (Idris Elba) “washing away” a colonial whiteness that covers both him and South Africa.

The film skips over Mandela’s early, anti-apartheid, anti-colonial education, instead briskly moving to his young adulthood as a lawyer (which establishes minimal context and mostly plays as a gag). The film then speeds further along to Mandela’s involvement with and leadership of the ANC (African National Congress), an anti-apartheid collective. The film does not acknowledge what motivated Mandela, other than obvious, prevalent racism in South Africa. There is no dramatic, watershed moment when Nelson Mandela became “Nelson Mandela.”

As a result, Elba, one of our more diverse actors, is not given much to work with. This Mandela is not as complex as Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of 12 Years, who exhibits anger toward, but also loyalty to slave owners. For Nicholson and Chadwick, Mandela is a symbol, rather than a complex historical figure. Mandela is part of the proud, five-fingered fist of the ANC. Early scenes momentarily touch upon Mandela’s shortcomings as a husband and father, but for the filmmakers, Mandela is mostly “Mandiba” (or “Father”) to South Africa.  A far more developed character is Mandela’s wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), another revolutionary, who is in constant conflict with her husband, and is forced through a few graphic, hard to watch scenes during her eighteen months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison.

In all, the film moves way too fast, but Nicholson did have a long book to adapt (Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom). Yet, rather than focus on one period of Mandela’s life, such as his tribal upbringing, college education, imprisonment, or presidency (as in Invictus [2010], which tells of Mandela attempting to unite an apartheid-torn South Africa with the 1995 Rugby World Cup), Nicholson surveys said 60 years of Mandela’s life, from his beginnings through the Rivonia Trial, when Mandela and other ANC members were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Indeed, a lengthy section of the film observes Mandela’s 27-years at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison: more than enough material for a single film.[1] Indeed, Mandela contains enough source material for half a dozen films.

Nicholson previously scripted longer projects, such as the 155-minute Gladiator (2000) and the 158-minute Les Miserables (2012), but as part of screenwriting teams. As a soloist, Nicholson can’t handle the scope, though not unfamiliar with the format. Gladiator, Les Miserables, and Mandela are each about unfairly imprisoned men

In the end of Mandela, as Mandela ascends to the presidency with great fanfare at the age of 75, penultimate shots recall The King’s Speech (2010). That biopic, however, fairs much better than Mandela. The former creates depth by adapting one moment or period from a subject’s life, rather than surveying the entire life.

[1] We see Mandela and other imprisoned ANC members breaking limestone at a quarry. Shortly afterward, Mandela washes white lime from his body, further cleansing himself of sticky whiteness, recalling the earlier, coming-of-age scene.