Walking backwards: Mainstream cinema and Mandela’s legacy

Back in July, I wrote excitedly for Hollywood Hegemony in anticipation of the upcoming screen-adaptation of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The trailer seemed to suggest not only a loyalty to Nelson Mandela’s philosophy, but during a summer of reactionary assault across the globe, an understanding of the broader importance of his legacy. Half a year later, having actually seen it, I can only summarise by saying they ruined a brilliant trailer with a third rate biopic.

Fittingly for a man who has essentially been hollowed out and used as a neo-liberal sock-puppet, Mandela appears quite dead behind the eyes here.

The main problem with Long Walk is that it never really seems to know what it wants to be. It meanders from romp to thriller to stoic political lecture with only the supposed coherence of chronology for structure. And that’s a sadly predictable result, because attempting to make any life, let alone one as rich and complex as Nelson Mandela’s, into a narrative, is futile, and frankly pointless.

Justin Chadwick’s direction comes across as naive at best, and biased at worst. There are tedious and elaborate inclusions of events that totally fail to humanise any of the characters, coupled with glaring omissions, in what swiftly descends from biopic into shambolic faux-history. It is impossible to say just what he and writer William Nicholson were attempting to say here, but the best you could possibly say is they don’t understand the subject matter. At worst, you could accuse them of trying to castrate Mandela’s legacy to the extent it is ideologically reconcilable with any political system – in order to globally market their product.

Most disturbingly, this leads to the air-brushing of the struggle against Apartheid – particularly regarding events following Mandela’s release. We are shown repeatedly the terrible things black people do to other black people thanks to a ‘lack of leadership’ including a “Zulu rampage” that left countless dead. Meanwhile there is an embarrassing unwillingness to face ‘white violence’ in the same way. President De Klerk is here portrayed as a man obsessed with “God’s special mission” to “save South Africa”. In the film, this means he is chiefly concerned with seeing Mandela prove he can lead (and prevent a slaughter of whites) before allowing one-person-one-vote elections.

De Klerk, in actuality, was completely unconcerned with the myth of ‘balance’ – arming groups to attack pro-ANC strikes, and leaving resurgent fascist groups unopposed on his watch (indeed there are a great number of allegations that suggest his security forces egged on such groups). None of that is covered – and it’s certainly not for lack of space in the material! For the first half an hour of the film I was left wondering if I’d stumbled into a 1970s porn-spoof, as young Nelson willfully attempted to shag everything that moved. Long Pork to Freedom didn’t, mercifully, last the duration, though almost as weirdly it’s disappearance was used as a device to demonstrate Mandela’s increasing political maturity. Because respected statesmen are well known celibates.

Winnie is here painted as politically naive and hateful to improve Nelson’s “Saintliness.” It is an unsuccessful contrast.

In fact, returning to the problematic attempt to turn a life into a narrative, this “maturity” is the running theme of the film. Maturity here is meant in a similar same way to when tired middle class ‘radicals’ inevitably cave in to the call of the wine and cheese, and declare “If you’re not a rebel when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. On the other hand, if you aren’t a Port-addled conservative parrot by the time you’re 50, you haven’t got a brain.” This unbearable re-purposing of the Mandela mythos paints blacks as reckless, hateful and savagely anti-white – unable therefore to be ‘trusted’ to fulfill the higher goal of liberal democracy. Mandela here remains an irrelevance until he can demonstrate to the National Party he isn’t like other blacks.

Here the film seems to reproduce the narrative of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) – mirroring the tragic story of a reasonable man, taken and tricked into believing the absurdity that he has some divine right to rule over others. In that film, the breakthrough comes when the Royal Speech Therapist sits defiantly on the throne at Westminster, provoking the King to defend his irrational position of privilege. In this case, the break-through comes when the Justice Minister asserts Idris Elba’s Mandela is “different” from the multitude who threaten “to tear the country apart through race war”, and Mandela sits in silent acceptance.

And that is the moment the tragedy is complete – that is the moment the white government know they can trust this fictional Mandela. Through the course of the film, the radical firebrand freedom fighter has been taken, beaten, melted down, and poured into the mold of dominant ideology. With this tacit admission that most blacks are inherently violent, and not victims of circumstance – just as he could have been – he has proven he can play the role of the National Party. With the belief he is the exception, picked out by some divine force to fulfill special ends, he can preserve the whites way of life, whilst giving it a more acceptable face.

And that makes me intensely uncomfortable; this historical sanitisation feels distinctly dirty. The shaping of Mandela’s life into a conservative fable of maturing into paternalism completely corrupts who he was, and what he stood for.  Subsequently, there’s nothing even particularly likeable about the on-screen avatar charading as Mandela, so forced is this ideological remodeling. Idris Elba’s impression is undeniably and improvement on Morgan Freeman’s ‘accent’, but it never evolves beyond an impression. For a film that ultimately promised to be about ‘love’ inspiring the fight for change, there is no feeling here, no genuine connection.

Elba looks dead behind the eyes long before he dons the make-up that’s only marginally more convincing than Harry Shearer’s caricature of Richard Nixon. When he talks, it’s almost exclusively in terms of “the struggle”, about guidance and leadership, about doing things “for” people, rather than with them. Even in the event of his son’s tragic death, he remains silent and unmoved. But the personal is political – and it’s precisely why millions of people do continue to involve themselves in fights for change.

Not much less convincing than Elba’s face as “Old Nelson”…

This void in the soul of the character we see cuts him off from us – we can never be like him, as his disconnected understanding suggests he was somehow chosen by history. And to me, that’s a tragic waste; not only because this incarnation of Mandela demonstrates a surprising lack of humanity (quite an achievement for a figure who has come to epitomise a profound love for his fellow man); but because a film like this shouldn’t leave us in awe of some omnipotent leader, it should inspire each of us to be our own Nelson Mandela.

Had the film ended differently, I’d have put this aloofness down to it being ‘critically supportive’; making a deeper point about how a genuine disconnect with people might have led to several key failures in Mandela’s time as President. But his short-comings never factor, regardless of being cold and disturbingly calculated from start to finish. From robotically telling his son “your mother does not understand the need for struggle,” to his failure to once say he loves any family member to their face, to the blunt and slightly frightening way Mand-Elba declares “As your leader I have to TELL YOU when you are WRONG,” there is no exposition here to indicate his motivation, beyond some vague sense of wanting people to be nice.

The one person who oddly comes out of this rather well is his long-suffering wife Winnie – played excellently by Naomie Harris. Despite the fact her role is to embody the “hateful” and naive alternative to “peaceful” change, and despite the fact she does undeniably incite some extremely brutal retaliations to state oppression, she ends up far more three dimensional, and identifiable, for it. The reason why she remained so committed to fighting, and meeting the violence of Apartheid with more violence, seems here not to be the chilling intimidation or mental and physical torture she suffers at the hands of Police. It is the undying love she feels for those around her – particularly her children, from whom she is separated from illegally for 16 months. Her visible distress, her concern for them, and the steely resolve it breeds, make her a far more human character than her Saintly husband.

The film concludes (SPOILER ALERT if you’re a complete ignoramus) with Mandela becoming President through peaceful elections, which we are told only he had the foresight to call for. The grim truth however, is this resolution would have never occurred, but for the National Party’s fear that bloody revolution was becoming inevitable. Without the elements in the ANC represented by Winnie, that would most likely have been impossible. The ‘real’ Mandela, I suspect, played on this ruling class fear more cannily in reality, leading to a ‘peaceful’ resolution, not because he knew better than black citizens, but because he knew the white rulers had been backed into a corner by that very movement, and exploited it for concrete change.

In this film however, that savvy political prowess is reduced to a hollow subservience, whereby freedom is granted rather than won. Intentionally or not then, a film about one of the world’s most famous radical struggles for change – and indeed one of the world’s most famous radical leaders – ends up reinforcing dominant assumptions relating to liberal capitalist democracy, that ‘violence’ is never the answer. Instead we should learn to be like our rulers to show we can be trusted with power. Just like capitalists didn’t.

As the film draws to a slow conclusion, Mandela strides through the vast grass-lands of his tribal homeland, surrounded by children. This is the trailer, word for word. And what before was vague enough to be beautifully relevant to fighting to better our world against the continued threats of race-hate and far-right politics, now feels like a meaningless sepia pantomime of the past. Because the Mandela who triumphs on screen here is hard to separate from any politician really – having been reconciled with the inequalities that cause an economic Apartheid to linger on, both in South Africa, and across the modern world. The credits roll, and we’re greeted by one final travesty: Bono. The tax-dodging ‘defender of Africa’ crows – with all the unnerving panache of “Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you!” – about “ordinary love”, in a film sadly bereft of just that.

About Jack Brindelli

No I won't back down. All views are those of the Womens Institute, Kensington branch.
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