The passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday has focused the world on South Africa and the man who led his country to a peaceful democracy. In the days ahead, we will see the state funeral and numerous retrospectives on his remarkable life. The movie Mandela scheduled to open in movie houses across Canada later this month is particularly timely. Directed by Justin Chadwick, Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomi Harris as his second wife, Winnie, are magnificent. Based on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (paperback, Little, Brown & Co., 1995), it traces the rise of Mandela from his native village, through his life as a lawyer in Johannesburg, his entry into politics, the increasingly difficult struggle (non-violent and violent) against apartheid, his trial and conviction as one of the leaders of the African National Congress, his extended years in custody, and his ultimate rise to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
It is a personal story of the man, told from his perspective, warts and all. Preoccupied with his increasing involvement in politics, his first marriage, to Evelyn Mase ended. In his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, he found a soulmate who was more than prepared to share his passions. Then he was imprisoned and she was left to struggle on alone. Ultimately, their views diverged and the pain of their separation becomes palpable. His relationships with his colleagues were not always easy. He was slow to get into the political arena. When he did, he was initially committed to non-violence, and then changed his mind. Convicted and imprisoned, he used his leverage to improve conditions for the prisoners, and became a symbol for freedom in South Africa. He later became convinced that violence was doomed to failure. Ultimately, he was willing to negotiate with the government alone in the face of criticism from those for whom the party was the priority.
The movie is also the story of the defeat of apartheid, and the founding of a nation. Those who have lived this story, or supported it from afar, will treasure how the film brings the narrative together. My husband thinks it could have been edited more tightly. I disagree. Condensing sixty years of history into two and a half hours is no mean feat. In my view, the film juxtaposes important public events and scenes of intimacy with great sensitivity and unforgettable images.
I was in Johannesburg and Cape Town for the first time this past spring, so the film really resonated with me. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a magnificent, very moving, multi-media review of the history. It includes an entire section on the life of Mandela. There is so much to see and so little time, that the average visitor is left overwhelmed. Had I seen the movie before visiting the museum, I would have made better use of my time there. Robben Island, now a national museum where former inmates guide tourists around an empty and sterile complex, comes alive in the movie as Mandela matures, his form of activism derided by younger militants wedded to violence. The movie is full of memorable scenes. One such is when Mandela, summoned to meet senior officials in the de Klerk government in a fancy villa up the mountain overlooking Cape Town, stops on the patio to survey the scene beneath him. For someone who had spent 18 years on Robben Island, 45 minutes across the water from the Cape Town harbour, such a sight must have been particularly poignant.
Needless to say, the moment the movie was over, I rushed off to buy the book. The book is a great read, full of the complexity, victories and setbacks that marked the struggle towards a racially integrated democracy. It is a compelling epic of one of the most heroic figures of our age, an insider’s rendition of the life of a real freedom fighter. The extensive detail of the autobiography fills out the history and makes it clear that the movie is but an overview. But an overview that drives you to the source is a success. And whether or not you read the book, the movie is worth seeing.