Mandela and the birth of a saint

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
English (A) ¬¬¬
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomi Harris, Tony Kgoroge

When Michelle Obama and her daughters first met Nelson Mandela in June 2011, she found herself overcome by feelings of gratitude.

Unable to utter few words other than “thank you,” she would later remember that meeting — however ordinary, as one of the most profoundly moving experiences of her life.

That she was meeting the man who embodied the symbol of an unlikely black victory over the powerful, unjust apparatus of Apartheid South Africa can explain her feelings, but that she was also confronted by a person who personified the overpowering message of good and forgiveness, is another aspect of a man still capable of eliciting such widely diverging labels as terrorist, freedom fighter, cunning politician, and saint.
In Justin Chadwick’s new film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (based on the seminal autobiography), Mandela’s life is charted from his childhood in the Xhosa tribal lands, to his emergence as South Africa’s post-apartheid leader. What we are meant to see is his glorious struggle as a victim of injustice to his international redemption (I can feel the tear ducts welling up already). The stories are largely true, sure. But somewhere in the film’s glossy, golden-tinted process of saint-building, the man has been lost.
The phenomenon is not new. No sooner had Mandela died when newspaper headlines around the world crowed that the “last saint had died.” Really? Well, if that is true, then humanity is indeed headed over the precipice into moral oblivion. Another proclaimed that, “He taught a continent to forgive” — news to a long roster of African dictators who never got the message.

To say that Long Walk continues this spectacle is no exaggeration. It is a sentimental film whose stunted script and acting promise more than they can possibly deliver. Young Mandela was an imperfect, philandering, wildly idealistic man, not above violence. In contrast, Mandela in the film (played by Idris Elba) is the suave representation of cool. Elba is wholly miscast — barring his outstanding imitation of Mandela’s halting, pensive way of speech. His dark, Ghanaian good looks outshine Mandela’s browner, more genial features; his Herculean bulk dwarves Mandela’s narrow-shouldered build. It would be like casting Mike Tyson to play Martin Luther King.

Elba also seems incapable of portraying those sharp, icy feelings of pain that come with emotional hurt. When the cinematic Mandela is called “boy” and told to mind his place by a judge he respects, the best Elba can come up with is a wry smile.
The sheer breadth of Mandela’s life makes his story best told in concentrated chapters. The Long Walk may be the seventh film to examine Mandela’s life, but only two “chaptered” performances stand out: Sydney Poitier in Mandela and De Klerk (1997), which examines the heady, last days of apartheid and Morgan Freeman in Invictus (2010), which details Mandela’s brilliant but calculated gamble to use the 1996 Rugby World Cup to unite strife-torn South Africa.

Empty, glossy epics like Long Walk to Freedom, where scenes are varnished and too rushed to resonate, do more harm than good. And the danger is high.

One day, George W Bush may get a tear-inducing film about his lonely struggle as the most powerful man on earth who triumphed over a pot-belied, mustachioed Middle Eastern despot who tried to kill his daddy.

Am I exaggerating? Yes. But films like the Long Walk which appeal more to sentiment than appreciation set us on a dangerous slope.
Does Mandela deserve a good film about his life? Absolutely. But this is not it.

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