You Really Should See the New Mandela Movie
Though it has already broken box-office records in South Africa, the new biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has gotten mostly middling reviews, or worse. Scott Tobias of the Dissolve wrote that this “dull, glossy, and uncomplicated film” provides “a lesson in how not to make a historical biopic.” Writing in Variety, Scott Foundas called it “stolidly reverential, shackled to the most dire conventions of the mythmaking biopic, and very much a white man’s view of the ‘dark’ continent.” Even the closest it got to a rave, from Stephen Holden of the New York Times, focused mainly on the film’s universally praised pair of central performances: Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as his second wife, Winnie.
But a day after the great man’s death at age 95, there’s a case to be made that, for people newly interested in Mandela’s life and times, you could do worse than Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. (Much worse.) Yes, the film makes the obtuse error of trying to cram his entire extraordinary life—and by extension South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and its revolutionary transition to majority rule, both of which have become nearly synonymous with Mandela—into a feature-length running time. And yes, it commits all manner of petty biopic crimes, from entombing its star in old-age makeup to blasting Bono over the credits.
Where the film is strongest, though, is in its depiction of Mandela’s early adult life and the years immediately preceding his imprisonment on Robben Island—exactly the era that most Americans, accustomed to their image of Mandela as the kindly, beatific grandfather of a nation, know the least about. There is precious little footage of the young Mandela, which seems to have been a boon to the filmmakers and to the magnificent Elba—freeing them to imagine the dashing young Johannesburg lawyer and shrewd, magnetic resistance fighter without having to check their work against a massive audiovisual record.
Jessica Winter is executive editor of newyorker.com and a former editor at Slate and Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Flatbush, Brooklyn.