I’ve just come from the Three Rivers Film Festival’s first screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The movie ended with a somewhat weak round of applause from a diverse yet mostly white suburban Pittsburgh audience. I say “weak,” not because the movie was poorly directed or acted, but because the more than two-hour film is exhausting and emotionally draining to watch. Although the end of the film is, of course, triumphant, the struggle against Apartheid was violent and shocking. Nearly 50 years in scope, the film details Mandela’s early association with the ANC, his incarceration at Robben Island and eventual election as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The movie also addresses his years as a reckless womanizer and his tumultuous relationship with his wives. True to its PG-13 rating, at times the film is so violent I had to glance away from the screen. Looking back, it seems unbelievable to me that Apartheid continued into my lifetime. That a civilized society as late as 1990 could still get away with this kind of inhumanity toward its fellow man is a shame on all of us.
Although I was actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement in high school and college, there is so much about Mandela’s story that I never knew. Naomie Harris is flawless as Winnie Mandela—almost unrecognizable from her role in Skyfall as the new Moneypenny. However, despite capturing Madiba’s distinctive accent, Idris Elba wasn’t physically convincing as Nelson, especially in the last third of the film when it is the frail, aged man who finally assumes his rightful place in South African history. It’s hard to portray a failing 70-year-old human when one has the body of an immortal.
The original score of the film (by Alex Heffes) will be released on Decca Records on December 10, but the entire soundtrack includes selections by Bob Marley & The Wailers (“War”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) and The Special AKA (“[Free] Nelson Mandela”) – just a few of the songs I remember hearing on the radio during my activist years. I didn’t hear the K’naan song that was released with one teaser I saw on the Internet a couple of weeks ago. Just as I expected, “Ordinary Love” plays over the final credits of the movie – but there is a brief teaser in one of the last few scenes. Just as Mandela steps outside to greet the waiting crowd after his inauguration, the theater audience hears an African chant with slow strains of a recognizable Edge guitar riff swelling in the background. The snippet isn’t in the song itself, but should be. Produced by Danger Mouse, “Ordinary Love” follows the final voice over of the film as Mandela walks through a field near his childhood home describing the nature of forgiveness and redemption: “Love comes more naturally to the human heart” than hate, he says. As a result, “Ordinary Love” couldn’t be better placed.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is the definitive account of Nelson Mandela’s life and is a fitting tribute to his lifelong struggle against tyranny. Rather than depicting him as a mythological idol, the film portrays him as a man who, at great cost, sacrificed his family and freedom for the lives of others. It is a story of honesty, maturity and truth, and will, I hope, be shown in classrooms all over the world. The movie will have a second showing in Pittsburgh tomorrow night and be released in theaters on November 29, 2013.