“But the problem with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is it tries to contain too much and, as a result, chokes when it comes time to showcase events that needed a longer, more careful sense of buildup.”

Before we can talk about the quality of the new Nelson Mandela biopic, may we talk about the title of the new Nelson Mandela biopic? The title – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – is the offspring of the combination of two perfectly acceptable names for a biopic on the legend himself. “Long Walk to Freedom,” the name Mandela assigned to his autobiography, would’ve been the perfect title, inspiring mystery, curiosity, and images of struggle and survival upon hearing the name. “Mandela” would’ve at least allowed for directness. Instead, we get two titles merged together to create one that, for some reason, has inspired nothing but shivers down my spine whenever I say it.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Directed by
Justin Chadwick
Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto
Release Date
25 December 2013
Steve’s Grade: C

The film, at hand, is a biopic on Nelson Mandela and that’s the most accurate and basic summation I can give. Clear in its emotional intent, a heavy-focus on its actors’ performances, maybe grovelling a bit too much for an Oscar, and orchestrating each one of Mandela’s accomplishments and hardships with tears from the audience in mind, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom works if you want a broad Hollywood rendition of one of the most legendary men to have lived in the past century.

In terms of a biopic, however, it, like many, bites off way more than it can chew. Even with the runtime of two and a half hours, it struggles to detail what Mandela went through before his twenty-seven year prison sentence, during his sentence, after his sentence, and in his later years, along with establishing his relationship with his wife Winnie, the African National Congress (ANC), and those who imprisoned him. For maximum potency, the film should’ve picked one of those sub-sectors and went from there. Fitting all of the aforementioned into a four and a half hour film (documentary or biopic) would be challenging, and to do it in two and a half hours and detail it accurately and efficiently would be a merciless task for any writer/director team.

At the core of the film is Idris Elba, a tremendous character-actor inhabiting a role that he likely couldn’t have seen himself in. Elba doesn’t resemble Mandela in terms of facial features and physical build (especially when you see Morgan Freeman, a polarizing twin to the man in those categories and a man known for his powerful monologues and terrific acting skills), but the power of his monologues and his speeches as the title character will be the reason he will receive many accolades and much award-recognition. It would be wonderful to see Elba in another Mandela film, one that showed him as more of a character than as an idea or an amazingly influential public figure who just seemed like any other individual not willing to give up.

Elba’s build and little-resemblance to the titular character doesn’t come into consideration when his voice is heard, whether it is utilized during a large speech or intimately talking to his wife Winnie (played nicely by Naomie Harris) during his prison sentence. The film he embodies, however, doesn’t live up to the standards set by Elba. For biopics, this is sadly becoming the norm, what with films like 42 and The Iron Lady boasting great lead performances at the center but a softer, less impressive shell altogether.

But the problem with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is it tries to contain too much and, as a result, chokes when it comes time to showcase events that needed a longer, more careful sense of buildup. Mandela’s prison sentence alone could’ve spawned a ferociously emotional, depressing line of affairs, especially when the prison guards seemed determined to make his stay a living hell. But because the film needs to at least touch on all the big moments of Mandela’s life, twenty-seven years feels like forty minutes with the truly gritty, emotional material gutted.

A great question for a contemporary American issues course or a course in sociology and public perception would be to ask if we, the media and the public, have made Nelson Mandela a larger-than-life man or have his actions made him one? If the latter question is true, perhaps a movie pragmatically detailing all his accomplishments, his personality, and his overall depth of a character would be a nearly impossible feature.

Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic