Idris Elba stars as South African icon and activist Nelson Mandela in this 2013 biopic detailing the anti-apartheid revolutionary’s life story. The film, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, begins with a young Mandela, shown briefly in boyhood and then as a young lawyer in Apartheid South Africa who joins the African National Congress party to fight apartheid and police brutality.
The film grapples with the concept of fairness and justice in a land and legal system that has a blatant contempt for the people of the country.
Watching this film filled me with so many different emotions, the most prevalent being anger. Firstly, the audacity of the apartheid regime and racism in general existing in an African country really boggles the mind. To watch the Black South Africans be racially abused and denigrated by the White settlers in their own land had me feeling HOT. I think the film attempts to temper this reaction by illustrating the dichotomy between vengeance and peace, mostly through the changing dynamic between Mandela and his wife Winnie.
Winnie, who herself spent seventeen months in solitary confinement while Mandela was imprisoned, was only further bolstered in her pursuit for retribution and justice after being released.
It was interesting to see some of the initial supporters of Mandela wane in their allegiance to what they now perceived as an old man who could no longer align with their cause after he negotiated with the government and advocated peace. They, understandably, felt his time incarcerated left him too far removed from the realities that anti-apartheid South Africans were suffering on the ground, while his time in confinement allowed him to master peace, perhaps as a main method of survival. A direct contrast to what Winnie’s time in prison did to her.
I think the film depicted this chasm really well both in dialogue and visually. As Mandela visibly aged in prison, Winnie remains mainly unchanged in appearance, as if she had been drinking from the fountain of youth. While it is true that she was younger than Mandela, I also thought her appearance served the message that she remained present in the angst that fuelled their initial efforts, whilst Mandela’s approach seemed to soften along with each grey hair he acquired.
Another theme this feature deals with is perspective. Every time Mandela is held at gunpoint, I was relaxed knowing that he doesn’t actually die until the 21st century. The benefit of hindsight is something we as viewers can enjoy but Mandela at the time had no way of knowing his fate. It’s interesting to me that before his life imprisonment Mandela made a moving speech in court testifying that equal opportunities and democratic society was an ideal which he was prepared to die for. At the time of giving this speech it was very likely that he would be sentenced to death at his 1964 trial. A man who was prepared to die spent the next 27 years of his life in prison where it seems his will to live exceeded that of the most patient person. Mandela found ways to cope with the brutal conditions of Robbin Island prison and created small tastes of freedom wherever he could.
Watching things like this, as well as the oppression of women in the Handmaid’s Tale and the oppression of the players in Squid Game just shows me that I do not possess the persistence required to survive these circumstances. I’m tapping out from the word go.
Once the world learned of the realities of apartheid, South Africa was forced to defend itself in the court of public opinion as the world began to sanction them based on their racial injustices. Perspective is an interesting thing, a lot of the world’s protestors against apartheid would have benefited to look at the discrimination occurring in their own back yards as well. The film deftly avoids incriminating world powers who assisted in the initial arrest and condemnation of Nelson Mandela. But I digress…
Naomie Harris should be a national treasure. She is truly a chameleon and a titan in the art of performance. There is no role too big for her. She really captured the fire in Winnie Mandela, and you can really see the preparation she undertook for this role. Was she accurately depicted? Winnie Mandela polarised people depending on political stance I guess, so people have completely different views about who she really was and what she stood for. For me, I think Naomie smashed it.
And of course, Idris Elba is no small boy actor. One thing I really must commend Elba on is the mannerisms of Mandela which I think he got down to a tee, from his walk to even his cadence and pacing in speech. He said he modelled Mandela off of his own father who was a Sierra Leonean man. As a fellow Sierra Leonean I can see that Elba probably embodied the presence of his father, and as a non-South-African I was impressed to see Elba pull of lines in Xhosa. I wonder if any South Africans reading this can attest to the accuracy of Elba’s dialect in this film. The director Justin Chadwick admitted that the late Mandela himself saw a snippet of Elba in character while filming was still ongoing and asked if it was true footage of himself. Can’t get much better affirmation than that. Come on Black British actors!
While I understand there are time constraints to consider when deciding what parts of a person’s biography to include in a feature, I do think there are some defining moments of Mandela’s life that were left unmentioned. One small area of improvement for me would have been to feature more South African music in the soundtrack. The use of British artists feels like a missed opportunity to fully complement the story.