I first became aware of Nelson Mandela’s plight in about 1984. I was a young 15 year old living in the depths of Suffolk running a mobile disco. A record by Special AKA was receiving huge amounts of airplay. Simply entitled ‘Nelson Mandela’ it was an uplifting reggae anthem issuing a call to action to the South African Government. Simple and repetitive. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. By this time, he had already been in prison since 1964, sentenced to life imprisonment for treason and saboutage. Four years later a huge concert was staged in Wembley Stadium celebrating his 70th birthday, again pressing for his freedom. It was broadcast to 400 million people in 67 countries. That precious freedom wasn’t granted until 1990. By then he had been captive for 27 years.
Any movie trying to do justice to the life of the revolutionary and politician who fought apartheid to become South Africa’s first democratically elected black President is going to be a tough mission. Based on Nelson Mandela’s 1984 autobiography, producer Anant Singh started planning the movie whilst Mandela was still behind bars. And last night I saw the finished work and a question and answer session with the two leads and Singh courtesy of BAFTA LA.
It’s a long movie. But i guess you would expect that when you are covering a whole life’s work, political ideology, historically significant events and world-changing moments. I had really been looking forward to seeing it especially since both leads are British.
To be honest, I expected the movie to be sensitive, powerful and emotional. If i had any reservations, it was whether Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, both Londoners, could pull off the biggest roles of their lives. But I was completely wrong. Both Elba and Harris are sensational. They both suspend belief and immerse you in the complexity of the two characters.
I wish I could say that for the rest of the movie. I found the first half dragged. The plot felt as though it jumped around, trying to cover too much historical ground. But I had little empathy for the protagonists. It was only until over an hour had elapsed, that we saw a deeper portrayal of the complex characters, their motivations and their demons. And that’s when I finally had true empathy with them. In fact, the turning point was watching Harris chronicle Winnie Mandela’s change from supportive and loving wife to ardent activist that got me. She captured the accent beautifully and the motivation behind the woman.
And as for Idris Elba. Well, the boy from Hackney, East London has done well! His accent was amazing, his thoughtful portrayal shone through. The aging process was extraordinary thanks to prosthetics and Elba’s change of body language. In the interview he gave afterwards last night, he explained that his one sadness was that he couldn’t lose enough weight in time when filming Mandela’s eventual release from prison. He wanted to show how cachectic the man had become. But due to the punishing filming schedule it just wasn’t possible. So instead, they made his clothes bigger and made them hang awkwardly. Simple but clever.
After we left the screening, a group of us spent ages discussing the relative merits and weaknesses of the movie. A sure sign that if nothing else, this movie is a talking point.
Mandela has polarized opinion throughout his life. And I have a feeling this movie will do the same.
Bullseye rating 6/10