Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 19 min.
Our Advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
South African producer Anant Singh’s decades-old project of bringing to the screen the life of Nelson Mandela has finally come to fruition. Directed by Justin Chadwick and with William Nicholson’s script based on Mandela’s autobiography, the film was premiered in South Africa, but the great leader was too ill to attend. Ironically, it was during the London premier that Mandela died, the actor who portrayed him, Idris Elba, coming onto the stage afterward to give the audience the news. Providing the more complete survey of the life of the leader than of any of the other dramatic films, the movie will be known more for Mr. Elba’s forceful performance than for its artistic merit.
Beginning with a quick glimpse of Mandela’s Xhosa village and the boy’s coming of age ceremony, the film jumps to his early years as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the early 1940s. Obviously enjoying his status and income that allows him to dress in three-piece suits, he marries his pious first wife Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), but still pursues other women. No saint is he at this time! However, his court cases soon brought him up against the apartheid system. He at first thought of the struggle against it as a personal one, but a leader of the ANC (African National Congress) convinces him—by displaying one finger, followed by others until a fist is formed—that there is more strength in working together than alone. He also sees that the justice system to which he is joined is corrupt when a friend dies under police custody.
I wish the script had rounded out the colleagues of Mandela more so that we could see that the anti-apartheid fight was less of a one-man struggle than this movie suggests. We are not even told their names, though they are listed in IMDb’s cast list. However, this is not too useful because in many cases the usually reliable IMDb does not provide a portrait of many of the actors. The leader using his fist as a symbol of unity might have been Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge), who also was convicted and sent to Robben Island, or it might have been Albert Luthuli (Sello Maake), better known to the world as Chief Lutuli, head of the ANC and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. (I wish we could have seen more of this great pacifist leader, whom Mandela opposed when he decided to resort to violence.) Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa) is seen in many scenes with Mandela, but also is never introduced by name: however, as the one activist of Indian descent, he is at least easy to identify.
Mandela’s many absences from home due to his immersion in the freedom struggle leads his wife to leave, but he soon meets the more like-minded Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris). The brief sequence of their courtship and wedding—the two going through two ceremonies, the first in Western style apparel, the second in traditional tribal attire—is the last pleasant time for Mandela, this being followed by the shooting of 69 black protestors in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, after which Mandela is shown renouncing non-violence and, as leader of the military wing of the ANC known as “Spear of the Nation,” embracing a bombing campaign against power stations and other government facilities. (He actually gave up pacifism before this in the mid-1950s.) There follows his going underground in an attempt to stay ahead of his relentless pursuers.
He and his colleagues are caught and brought to trial, this dramatic sequence including his raised fist “Amanda” declaration in court and the following statement heard in the trailer: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The group members are found guilty, but the judge, seeking to deny them martyrdom, sentences them to life imprisonment at hard labor on Robben Island instead. There amidst harsh conditions and brutal treatment, Nelson Mandela matures as a man and a leader. We see some of this by the way the furnishings of his tiny cell change through the years—from just a barren room with a cloth or mat for a bed to one equipped with a bed, a stand and some books and a picture of Winnie. Allowed but one visitor a year at first (and no children because visitors have to be at least 16), his conversations and his mail are censored for any political content. One letter from Winnie is almost in shreds, so many lines have been cut out with a censor’s sharp knife (for more on this see the film about Mandela’s censor The Color of Freedom.) Although I wish that his learning Afrikaans in order to communicate with his Boer guards had been included, the details that are shown reveal how, despite the abusive treatment, Mandela kept his sense of dignity and self-worth, ably passing it on to his fellow prisoners, even a group of newly arrived young Turks who at first regard him as out of touch. One of these small victories shown stems from his complaining that the prison uniform of short rather than long pants was undignified.
Interspersed are scenes of Winnie being harassed by the police while her terrified children look on. She screams her resistance, and when imprisoned herself, refuses to give in to her tormentors. The movie could be seen as a portrayal of the contrast of two reactions to injustice. At first Mandela believes that violence must be resisted with violence, but his years in prison lead him to reach out to his oppressors, considering them as fellow human beings. On the other hand, Winnie moves toward a hard line opposition. Emerging as a celebrity in her own right, she lets out her anger in her fiery speeches, urging her followers to punish the blacks among them who have served as police informers. We see them doing this in a terrible scene of what was called “necklacing.” A crowd chases down an informer; places an old tire around his neck while dousing it with gasoline, and then setting it and the victim afire. A quick succession of scenes then shows youth hurling Molotov cocktails at armored police vehicles. Many of them are shot in the streets as they attack or flee.
During the latter part of the film we see Mandela, against the advice and the votes of his colleagues sitting down to talk with government officials, eventually with the new President W. de Klerk (Gys de Villiers). The long international boycott against South Africa, shown in numerous newsreel clips, has brought the more moderate members of the white government to the bargaining table. A heavy pall of fear hovers over the negotiations: can either side trust the other? The whites are especially fearful of retaliation. It is only Mandela’s announcement that he has forgiven those who took 27 years of his life and destroyed his family that the white leaders begin to see what manner of a man they are dealing with. After snatches of the negotiations, with the whites and among the black leaders also, the film moves forward to Mandela’s release, his campaign to win over the angry rioting people, his break up with Winnie (the film makes it appear that it is her refusal to give up violence, the filmmakers leaving out her extra-marital affairs), and his election to the presidency.
This might not be a great film, but it certainly offers a brief (despite its almost 2 ½ hour length) look at a man capable of enormous moral and spiritual growth under harsh circumstances. There are some, as you can see by tweets and comments at various Mandela websites, who still regard him as a Communist and a terrorist. Both charges are true (though his flirting with Communism ended in disillusionment), but they are not the whole truth. During his long struggle, his acceptance of the support of tyrants such as Qaddafi showed that his judgment was not fallible—something I believe that also was shown by the young Mandela’s giving up nonviolence. But there can be no question that he was the one man able to prevent the blood bath that most observers thought would ensue with the dismantling of apartheid. In 1949 the prophetic South African writer Alan Paton in his world-class novel Cry the Beloved Country had an Anglican black priest express this fear, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (meaning “whites”) are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” Be sure to watch this film and learn why the winning of the freedom of one race did not result in the attempted destruction of the oppressing race. I am looking forward to a second screening in the hope of identifying some of the other worthies who also were prepared to die with him for their ideal of freedom.
People of faith also will appreciate Mandela’s commentary on his reconciliatory policy made near the end of the film: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” This film certainly shows that former terrorist Nelson Mandela was a very good learner—and then a very good teacher of a whole nation! And through this film, of the whole world.
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.