Biopic about Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) from being a lawyer in 1940s South Africa to ANC activism, his imprisonment in 1964 and his life in prison and release to global eminence. It looks at his personal life and at Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) and her struggles with apartheid officialdom.
The timing of this film couldn’t be better, released just after Mandela’s death. Although this film doesn’t flinch at Mandela’s self serving treatment of his first wife, and it acknowledges Winnie Mandela’s struggle, it is mostly predictably hagiographic so it reinforces the myth. Interestingly, according to a South African producer Oks Mseleku, South African women regard Winnie’s role as more important than Nelson Mandela’s (is this fair considering his imprisonment?). She suffered solitary confinement and never forgave her persecutors whereas Mandela became martyr-dependant on his Afrikaan jailers. I confess that I am not a Mandela admirer, for me he was a flawed politician. because he was too intent on being a “good man”, moral superiority can hamper political effectiveness. Bertold Brecht wrote about the unpolitical temptation to be good. As President he failed to speak out against evil dictators (he was said to have given his support to one!). He could be pompously autocratic with his own comrades, even as he cultivated his Kumbaya prose with his captors. From his prison years his growth into Gandhi-like moral stature compensated for the enforced parenthesis of political activism during his prison life, and this moral myth factored into a global need for the saint who would dwarf our moral pettiness as we continue to be anti-racial at no personal cost. The film takes this easy way out: we get the usual gushing orchestra as he strokes the wheat in the African. landscape. Opposition to racist stupidity is the usual stoical humour plus photogenic anger. His years as a lawyer and activist are rushed through, which is unsurprising because here he is merely a human being rather than the world’s saint. The courtroom scenes glaringly pay tribute to his obvious bravery and eloquence. Once he’s behind bars the film focuses on his moral image especially when, after the Soweto riots, newly imprisoned young activists challenge him on his moral patience, he seems to be turning into the wise patriarch deigning to listen to criticism. In his negotiations with de Klerk’s politicians they turn into reverential schoolboys, he would have got a feistier reception from any apartheid victim
Mandela gives it’s subject the sort of sentimentally reverential treatment that Attenborough would have given to it, indeed it seems to imitate Attenborough’s Gandhi and Cry Freedom. Attenborough also does the aging saintly patriarch routine quite well, as long as there is nothing ordinarily human to tarnish the icon. What the film doesn’t need is the song at the end, it’s by that would be saviour of Africa, the creepily opportunistic Bono (Bonehead). Spectacular but unconvincing.