Change can be a glacier or an avalanche, a slow drip or a tidal wave. We can push for change and find it won't budge. We can resist change as it sweeps us away. And even though we know change is coming—because, of course, it always does—it's almost impossible to say what it will look like or when it will arrive.
In the early 1960s, Nelson Mandela was pushing for change.
South Africa was in the grip of apartheid, a system of government ensuring that the country's white minority population would stay in power. For 50 years, Mandela said, blacks had been working for change—for equality. And yet nothing happened. Instead, what few rights they had were slowly being whittled away. After so much time and so much oppression and what seemed to be a growing willingness by the ruling elite to use violence, Mandela decided that he and the African National Congress would push harder for change—using violence themselves.
The state pushed back, arresting Mandela and other ANC leaders. They were sent to the notorious Robben Island prison.
"It's a pity they didn't hang you," the prison commander told Mandela. "I'm going to make sure you wish they had."
The rest of Mandela's life was to be a tedium of stagnation, his tiny cell his forever home. He'd never hug his wife again, never touch his children or grandchildren. Every day would look the same, feel the same. On Robben Island, change was locked away just as forcefully as Mandela.
But you can't stop change. And conditions begin to shift on Robben Island. Grass mats are replaced with beds. Humiliating shorts are replaced by trousers. Dignity takes root and begins to grow. Small freedoms are given. These are incremental changes, yes, but not insignificant.
For outside Robben Island, the world is changing too. Countries are boycotting South African goods. Businesses are withholding investments. World leaders are pressuring South Africa to abandon apartheid. And the people are marching in the streets and chanting, demanding Mandela be released.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. In that time, he made no speeches, led no rallies. He chipped at rocks and grew tomatoes and waited. And yet he became the catalyst for perhaps the biggest change South Africa has ever seen.
If there could be such a thing as a secular saint, Mr. Nelson Mandela would be on the short list. Despite some character flaws (which the film does not ignore) and his flirtations with violent protest, he's widely seen as South Africa's George Washington, a man as committed to freedom, justice and, in his own way, peace as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Any story that attempts to document Mandela's life is intended to inspire. And Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom doesn't disappoint.
Mandela is portrayed as a man of unshakable conviction. He's willing to sacrifice all that he is and has for South Africa's freedom, up to and including his life. Even as the country's apartheid system begins to crumble and its power leaders begin to talk with Mandela—hoping to find a place to compromise—Mandela refuses to bend his ideals.
And yet he is also a gracious man. We see him treat his guards with civility, even kindness, and deal with his political adversaries with firm cordiality. While he refuses to abandon the concept of violence as a tool for change, he eventually proves to be a man of peace—working to diffuse growing racial tensions. As a presidential candidate he tells revenge-minded South Africans, "There is only one way forward, and that is peace." As president, he makes sure to include both whites and blacks within his government, setting the stage for reconciliation.
When Mandela sees two of his grandsons pretending to gun down his white guards, Mandela gently chastises them. "That is what they do to us," he says. "We must do better."
Long Walk to Freedom suggests that faith was not a big motivator in Mandela's life or ideology. Indeed, it's portrayed as merely a source of friction with his first wife, Evelyn. As Mandela grows more politically involved, we're shown that he practically ignores her and the kids. At one point, Evelyn implores him to set aside work for the night and come to bed. "Leave some things to God," she says. He snaps back, telling her that "your God" won't feed the kids or help people on the streets. "It seems to be He is looking after the boss," he says. (In real life, Mandela was reportedly a Methodist, Evelyn a Jehovah's Witness.)
After divorcing Evelyn, Mandela meets Winnie, a woman whose political and spiritual bent seem to align more closely with his own. She recounts a story of a grievously sick girl who was prayed over devoutly. "But she died," Winnie says. "Ever since then, I know we have to save ourselves."
But faith does play a part in the abandonment of apartheid and Mandela's release. FW de Klerk becomes the country's president, and the leader is described onscreen as "very Calvinist." The movie tells us he believed he was called by God to "save the people of South Africa," and he promptly frees Mandela, puts an end to apartheid and encourages the creation of a one-man, one-vote democracy. (In real life, he and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.)
During their courtship, Nelson makes out with Evelyn, easing his hand up her dress. "Not until we're married," she says, and she giggles as the camera turns away.
But marriage doesn't mean as much to Mandela as it should. While married to Evelyn, he carouses with and seduces other women, prompting his wife to loudly call him on his affairs. After the two divorce, Mandela meets Winnie, who says she's heard that Mandela has "a lot of girlfriends." "I'm different," she assures him.
We don't see Mandela with any other women thereafter, as the camera instead watches him with Winnie, rolling in the grass together, smooching and touching in bed. (The scenes are suggestive, not explicit. We see no nudity.) After his release from prison, though, when Mandela puts his hands on Winnie's shoulders she visibly tenses. "It's just been so long," she says. Later they separate and finally divorce, and we hear Mandela talk about Winnie's own extramarital dalliances.
During a flashback to a coming-of-age ceremony in Mandela's native village of Mvezo, we see men, caked with white powder, run naked into a lake to bathe. As a young lawyer, Mandela defends a maid who was accused of stealing her employer's skivvies: Mandela holds a pair of panties up in the courtroom and asks the employer if she's sure they're hers, embarrassing her. There's talk of a venereal disease causing a death.
South Africa during apartheid is a brutal place, with the white government using violence to cement institutionalized racism. We see a man beaten to death by police, and the authorities routinely harass, mistreat and bludgeon citizens. When Winnie herself is arrested, she's physically torn from her children and carted off; a policeman hits her in the face, knocking her over. Military vehicles rumble ominously through townships, and more horrific scenes of violence are shown through old news clips. Perhaps the worst case of violence takes place in Sharpesville, when dozens of men, women and children are shot by police—most in the back—leaving bloodstained corpses on the ground.
"The movement has always been nonviolent," Mandela says after the massacre. "Not anymore."
Mandela plants bombs and sabotages power plants. And the violence seems to grow worse when he's imprisoned. Egged on by Winnie, blacks attack whites and other blacks (whom they believe may be collaborating with the government). We see men attack with machetes (we don't see the blows land) and wrestle people to the ground (whom we later hear were torn apart). One man is doused with gasoline and set alight after a tire is placed over his head (a real practice known as "necklacing"). A brutal tribal showdown leaves a village strewn with bodies.
Crude or Profane Language
Four s-words. "B‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑" are said one or two times each. Jesus' name is misused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A man gets drunk and is subsequently arrested. (He's beaten to death after throwing up on a policeman's shoe.) Mandela and others smoke cigars, cigarettes and pipes. People drink alcohol.
Other Negative Elements
When Winnie's arrested, she urinates on a policeman's shoe.
Change indeed comes to us all. After many years and much hardship, it came to South Africa. And it came to Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
When the two first meet, they're of similar mindsets. Both want freedom for the people of South Africa, and both are willing to go to great lengths to help achieve that freedom. Both love each other very much. And if Winnie's a little more radical, a little less forgiving, it's not a difference that matters.
But when Nelson's imprisoned, Winnie's path is forever altered. She's pulled repeatedly from her children and arrested for no reason. She grows angry and bitter. When Mandela asks her how she bears it all, she has an easy answer:
"By hating them. And don't tell me it is wrong. It keeps me strong."
Winnie fights the authorities with all her might and will—and the fight begins to twist her, turns her into a mirror of the injustice she herself experienced.
But Nelson Mandela, in prison, walks slowly down a different track.. He learns that every time a guard sees him angry, it's a victory for the guard. His mission in prison is to earn respect, and he finds that to get respect, one must give it. While he knows that it'll take time to change the guards' attitudes, time is something he and his ANC fellows have plenty of.
As Winnie sets fires, Nelson grows tomatoes. As Winnie whips up riots, Nelson learns the names of his guards' children. For all his idealism, Nelson Mandela proves to be an eminent pragmatist. He has just as much or more reason to hate South Africa's ruling elite as anyone. He admits that part of him longs for revenge. But he knows that his goal of a free South Africa cannot be achieved through violence and hate. It must be grown through other means.
President Nelson Mandela died just hours before a South African screening of this movie was to be held. When asked whether the showing should be postponed, his daughter, Zindzi, said no. Why not? "She believes it's an accurate portrayal," reported Us Weekly.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom gives us a depiction of a man who wasn't always that great. He cheated on his wife. He ignored his own children at times. He committed acts of violence and sabotage. The movie, as generous as it is with Mandela's legacy, does not shy away from those uncomfortable truths. Nor does it turn away from the horrific violence perpetrated against him and his peers.
But it also shows us that there is a better way for all of us to change—with grace and forgiveness.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela; Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela; Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu; Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada; Zolani Mkiva as Raymond Mhlaba; Simo Mogwaza as Andrew Mlangeni; Fana Mokoena as Govan Mbeki
Justin Chadwick ( The Other Boleyn Girl )
The Weinstein Company
November 29, 2013
Paul Asay Paul Asay