Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Dec 24, 2013

Nelson Mandela's bio needs more insight, less history.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Grade:  C+

Director: Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl)

Screenplay: William Nicholson (Les Miserables)

Cast: Idris Elba (Thor), Naomie Harris (Skyfall)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 139 min.

by John DeSando

“The political or spiritual hero will always be the one who, when others crumbled, stood firm till the new order built itself around him; who showed a way out and beyond where others could only see written ‘no thoroughfare.’” William James

The recent death of South African hero Nelson Mandela demands a biography that deals with the fall of apartheid and the rise of a global icon.  Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom gives an informative history of the hero (played by the towering Idris Alba) from his formative days as a lawyer in the 1940’s to his ascension to the presidency of South Africa in 1994.

However it doesn’t give the full measure of his arguments or even thoughts about steering the country of 30 million blacks to a majority rule. The intriguing process of moving from violence to peaceful elections is telescoped in favor of a superficial timeline. I longed for a fuller dialogue between the white administrators and imprisoned Mandela as they sought a peaceful resolution to the growing unrest in the majority population.

Similarly, I needed more dialogue between the balanced Mandel and his incendiary wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), whose alleged crimes against humanity but subsequent election to the African national Congress confirmed her as a lightning rod for the complex balancing of power in South Africa. While the narrative shows Mandela’s notorious womanizing, it gives too little attention to perhaps the most interesting figure of all, Winnie.

In my discussions with a young man about the film, I discovered our differing points of view came from his enjoying the historical timeline and my wanting the words that motivated the history.  Thus I am of two minds about Mandela: The history lesson is well presented; the words and negotiations that engendered a global and historical grand opera were too lean.

I recognize the story is about Nelson and not Winnie, but this film is also storytelling, and much more story is inherent in Winnie’s narrative than the slow 27 years of Nelson’s incarceration. If you’re young, you’ll learn about a defining hero of the 20th and 21st centuries. If you’re seasoned like me, you’ll want the words.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club National Entertainment Journalist first-place winner,   hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics, both of which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at