The first thing that has to be said in our Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom review is you would be hard-pressed to find someone other than Idris Elba to do a better job portraying the man who is much more than even the words icon or legend could describe. Elba plays Nelson Mandela from his early twenties until after he is elected president of South Africa. For an actor, and for the film itself, it is quite an endeavor to capture a life so extraordinary, especially one based on the autobiography written by the man himself.
Mandela’s story is about as well known as there is out there. But what is fascinating is there are still things for the audience to learn about the man who would lead a revolution to reverse decades of hate, racism, economical, physical and psychological warfare on a majority of people by their fairer skin minority. There are things he does as a young man that add a human element to the man who has achieved almost saint-dom in the mind of so many.
There is also his relationship with his wife Winnie (an astounding Naomie Harris) that is treated with the utmost care, as previewed in the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom trailer. As our story begins, Nelson is more of a violent revolutionary and Winnie is the quieter one seeking a more peaceful means of change. As Nelson is imprisoned, director Justin Chadwick paints a picture that sees their relationship moving like a see-saw. He grows more non-violent and she gets more violently revolutionary. It is no wonder the two grew apart over the decades he was imprisoned. It wasn’t only the separation that doomed their marriage.
The thing about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom that one must know heading in is it is long. The film clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours. But, there is nothing that can be cut! In fact, we wish there was more to explore in the life of a man that so many people think they know, and in reality there is so much more to know. It does not feel long and when we finally get to the iconic moment that was broadcast on television screens across the globe — Mandela dancing with his adoring public outside his home after his release – there was not a dry eye in the house.
What else is fascinating in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is how filmmakers painted a picture of the man as a realist. I believe that is the utmost of importance in this age of political divide. There could not have been two parties further apart in their beginnings, politics and life experience than the whites who ran South Africa and the man who everyone knew would eventually lead the nation. Yet, Mandela knew he had to work with his jailers in order to achieve a peaceful future for the nation he so adored. And in showing that aspect of the Nelson Mandela story, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom may have achieved its greatest victory.