Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom


  • More a historical checklist than a character study, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom isn’t true to its tagline. Which is to say, this film shows the leader we knew, but it doesn’t show the man.
  • That doesn’t mean the film fails. Carried by its stars, it is entertaining. Idris Elba is magnetic as Nelson Mandela, capturing the man’s patience, reserve, charisma and gentleness. Nevermind that Elba is not a physical match for Nelson Mandela; he is an emotional one.
  • Naomie Harris is scene-stealing good as Winnie. Using limited screen time and equally limited dialogue, at least through the movie’s first half, Harris communicates emotion through facial expressions and gestures. When Winnie stands on top of courthouse steps fifty minutes into the film, we feel her anger, but we also feel grief as Harris shows us, without speaking a word, how the system has broken her character, has left her something other than what she once hoped to be.
  • Really, through Harris’s performance, William Nicholson’s script and Justin Chadwick’s direction, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom sometimes feels like Winnie’s film. She’s well developed and sympathetic, not to mention something of an anti-hero.
  • Fortunately, neither Elba, Nicholson nor Chadwick allow Winnie to over-dominate the movie. Each time it seems she might, the picture returns to Elba, who gamely provides an anchor.
  • But that’s where Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom starts going wrong. In the opening act, we see Nelson Mandela the womanizer, and we are constantly reminded of his patience and determination, while also shown his failings as a father. Other than that, however, we do not gain particular insight into this great man. We better understand the events of his life, but we do not understand him.
  • Or the relationships he develops. Nicholson’s script jumps forward through time so quickly that characters often relate differently from one scene to the next. Think of how Mandela relates to his prison guards; one moment they’re terrorizing him, the next they’re practically laughing at him when he makes a request, and the one after that? They’re giving him what he wants. We don’t really see the shift develop.
  • In the end, this movie might have been too ambitious for its own good. Had it focused on a single part of Mandela’s adult life, say his imprisonment and what came after, it might have been better able to develop the central character, in all of his complexity. Instead, the film develops the man’s history, but less so his personality.
  • For all of that, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom is still easy viewing, no doubt because it features several moments of intense emotion, many of them from Winnie. This is an above average movie. It’s just not great.
  • Final Grade: C+

12 thoughts on “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

  1. “it shows the leader we knew, but it doesn’t show the man”
    Well said! I guess that’s the shameful Hollywood treatment it got (which it didn’t deserve at all). Nice review, and I agree with all your points here.

  2. I’m a big fan of The Wire so Idris Elba is a star for me. Can you see Elba being a big success on the big screen?

    I’m not sure I’ll see this. It’s a real shame when a biography is disappointing. I think your point about keeping it to a specific moment in his life might have been more effective.

    • I can. And I do. He starred in Pacific Rim, has an important role in Thor and now carries this biopic with an award worthy performance. He may never be an A-Lister, but he seems to be doing well enough that he’ll continue to be cast as prominent side characters.

  3. I finally just gather up my thoughts to write the review for this and I agree that it’s not quite the character study I was expecting. I love Elba though, so I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    • I did, too. C+ is still above average for me and is also a grade that indicates my recommendation, though it’s a tepid one. I think both Elba and Harris are great.

      And I look forward to your review!

  4. Good review. I think Idris Elba is a great actor. I really like him in RocknRolla! Shame that it wasn’t better and I think you are probably right in that it failed due to not staying on track with one part of his life. I would be intrigued to see this movie if it only depicted his imprisonment.

    • I love Elba, too. Have ever since The Wire.

      The movie is worth seeing as is. It’s not one of the most impacting biopics ever and isn’t necessarily a must see. But it’s not a waste of time either.

  5. Historical checklist! that right there alone summarize the entire film aptly! I kept hoping Elba would blew me out of the water on this one, and sadly his performance was weigh down by the screenplay. I would love to see more character study rather than what i saw on screen. 😦 probably won’t review this one on my blog just out of disappointment.

    • I agree completely. Well except that I obviously reviewed it. 🙂

      Elba and Harris are excellent here and do everything they can to give this movie emotional weight, which is why it’s not a total failure. But screenplay simply doesn’t have the gravitas it needs to capitalize on their powerful portrayal. Oh well.

      And thanks for the comment!

  6. So glad you liked Harris’ work. She was by far the best part of the film. I thought the film was overly sentimental and baiting for the Awards, but her performances was really far and above all of that.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      And I agree completely on the film in general. I think Harris and Elba about equal in performance quality, but they were certainly far superior to the sentimental narrative.

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