The critics have said that the story of Mandela could not be squeezed into a 2 ¼ hour film. To a certain extent this is true. The director, Justin Chadwick, has had to make big decisions about what part of the story needs to be told in order to get the greater, rounder picture of this extraordinary man. Elements of the early part of Mandela’s life are very quickly touched upon; his coming of age, his first marriage, even his infidelities flash in rather a bewildering fashion across the screen. But the film has to move on: to the meeting with Winnie, to the change in ANC tactics (blowing up power stations instead of passive resistance), to the trial and then to his time on Robben Island. Again, only important elements of his eighteen-year incarceration on the island can be shown; his fitness regime, his dignified demands for rights, his fleeting visits from Winnie. However, the film then starts to slow down: his refusal to leave prison before he is given unconditional release and then the breakdown of his marriage are given more prominence, as is his ability to stop the rioting and the bloodshed before election day.
Very little of the story was new to me, but I suppose the director assumes this, assumes he can pick and choose what parts to tell in a limited time. What he has done is told the story all in one piece, put it all together for us. He does this with a talented cast of actors. Idris Elba is a towering figure in this film. He has said that he cannot look like Mandela but what he does do is speak with those distinctive cadences which made Mandela’s speech so memorable. He also convincingly manages the metamorphosis from a sharp, fun-loving ladies’ man to the dignified, highly-respected gentleman with enormous integrity, who managed to carry South Africa through a time of turmoil with relatively little bloodshed to a truly democratic election. The film also takes us behind the scenes to show the sacrifices that both Nelson and Winnie made for the cause; it shows Winnie’s radicalisation, the brutal treatment which made her bitter and angry. Naomie Harris makes a wonderful Winnie, moving from star-struck young bride to embittered fighter. I would have liked more of the time on Robben Island and how he won respect and concessions for the prisoners; other people may have wanted more information on other aspects and this is where the film feels too short. No doubt others will fill in the gaps in years to come.
At the end of the film, the audience clapped. I can’t remember the last time that happened. What were they clapping? The film? The great man himself? No matter, they clapped. Madiba should never be forgotten and this film tells (some of) his story. Amandla.