Historian at the Movies: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom reviewed
As part of our new series, Dr Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer in world history at King’s College London, reviews Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – a film based on the former South African president’s autobiography
Q: Did you enjoy the film?
A: I really enjoyed the film. Watching Mandela on a screen only a few weeks after his death reminded me that we had already thought of his legacy before his death. Many books, films or documentaries had already portrayed the life of the first black South African president, but the coincidental release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with his death gave a particular dimension to this film.
I have taught the history of South Africa with the help of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography for quite a few years now, and I can see how much work was put into this film. I particularly liked how the film director made a conscious effort to show a multi-faceted Mandela. I also liked this film because Idris Elba was able to show how determined Mandela remained throughout his life.
This film is also a perfect example of the construction of an icon. Mandela’s image has been carefully shaped by his political party and by the Nelson Mandela Foundation for the past 30 years. We can clearly see that this film is no exception, as it contributes to the ever-growing body of books or films praising Mandela’s actions.
Q: Was the film historically accurate?
A: The film was mainly based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. So, yes, it clearly depicted Mandela’s understanding of the apartheid years. Or, at least, what he wanted to let us know. As the film is not based on Mandela’s life but on Mandela’s own words, criticism levelled at Mandela’s autobiography can also be directed at the film.
For example, the film, as Mandela’s autobiography, intends to justify the choices made by Mandela to use violence against the apartheid state. In 1961, with other members of his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela organised a paramilitary group, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which bombed public buildings in South Africa in order to destabilise the government. The film, like the book, does not shy away from what can be described as terrorism, but the film director chose to follow the arguments provided by Mandela himself in his book.
We can observe the same phenomenon happening for the 1976 Soweto uprising. When watching the film, we can only see that the riot was led by a new generation of South Africans who were not in direct contact with the older generation of ANC leaders. The film did not spend much time evoking this pivotal event, because Mandela did not say much about Soweto in his book. The Soweto uprising was, however, instrumental in creating a new political climate in South Africa that directly led to the politicisation of many young South Africans.
Q: What did the film get right?
A: The film clearly showed that Mandela was a man of action before being sent to prison for 27 years. He was no theorist; he did not write books about guerrilla warfare or nonviolent resistance. Constantly on the move in the 1950s, Mandela was a radical politician who wrote speeches, organised the ANC and prepared plans to face the government. Hardly seeing his family, he devoted his life to politics.
Mandela was not afraid of making difficult political choices. This is exactly what the film shows when, without the consent of many ANC members, he opened negotiations with the Apartheid government in the late 1980s. A few years later, Mandela was not afraid of telling South Africans that they needed to forgive each other. Mandela was a statesman with a strong sense of duty, and the film clearly depicted it.
Q: What did it miss?
A: The film hardly mentioned the role played by women during the apartheid years. By focusing only on Winnie Mandela, the film suggested that other women’s role was rather limited. For example, it might have been worth showing the 1956 anti-pass march co-organised by the Federation of South African Women and the ANC Women’s League.
The film also missed the evolution of Mandela’s political views throughout his life. In the 1940s and 1950s, Mandela was a radical who adopted a multi-racial view for the future of South Africa – an opinion which was publicised in the 1955 Freedom Charter and the 1956–61 Treason Trial.
After 27 years in prison, Mandela arguably adopted a more conservative political stance. For instance, contrary to what he campaigned for in the 1950s, Mandela changed his economic policies and no longer supported the nationalisation of key industries in the 1990s.