I thought I knew the Nelson Mandela story. After all, I have read numerous articles about him over the years, saw several movies about him, and watched him speak innumerable times on TV. Turns out, I knew relatively little of the true story until tonight I discovered it at the Academy when I attended one of the first screenings anywhere of the new docudrama, Mandela Long Walk to Freedom , being released on Thanksgiving Day by the Weinstein Company. (Thanks to their very able Lisa Taback for inviting me -- my God, girl, 21 years with Harvey. That's bravery!) The producer of the movie, Anant Singh, told the rapt audience of the 22 years it took him to get it made after he acquired the film rights to Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He had made a small film with the actor Idris Elba some years before, so he knew the actor had the powerful chops to play Mandela. He also had worked with Naomie Harris, so he knew that she was going to be Winnie Mandela in the film. What he hadn't realized was how hard it would be to raise the money for the film in South Africa, but he was determined that it would be locally financed, and eventually garnered enough to make the film. A miracle, but one which will redound favorably around the world shortly.
Then, last night, a nice bombshell. The producer introduced to the audience Nelson Mandela's daughter, Zindzi. This very attractive woman came on stage and talked openly and glowingly about her father and the hardships which their family endured to reach the pinnacle which they finally achieved. She ended by saying humorously that she was never as attractive as the young actress (Lindiwi Matshikiza) who portrays her in the film we were about to see. False modesty, she was beautiful.
I called it a docudrama, but actually this is a full-blown feature film based on the true life story of the (now) 94-year old hero. I also call it a mini-epic, for this is a grand, large-scale movie with lots of 'production values' (God, how I hate that expression). The movie begins (after a few shots of a young African boy, Rolihlahla (which means 'making mischief'. His schoolmates renamed him Nelson), growing up in the bush, with the young man Mandela slowly being encapsulated into the political scene while leading a somewhat wild life of bachelorhood with several women, one of whom he marries. But she soon leaves him for cause.
Interspersed with this personal drama is a background of the ugly, repressive apartheid regime of the minority white Afrikkaners in South Africa. Somewhere in these early years he meets Winnie, who soon becomes his soulmate. We then focus on the violence and brutality which ends with the Mandela character, now a leader of the ANC (African National Congress), being sentence -- along with a handful of fellow leaders, to life imprisonment on a Robben Island jail. By then he and Winnie had married and had several children. The 27 years-long, cruel period of imprisonment are searingly depicted, isolated and almost cut off from any contact with his family. We see the growing rage of the black majority, depicted by violent riots throughout the country, and eventually the racist Boer leadership reaches out to Mandela to see if they can make an accommodation. He demands unconditional freedom for him and his associates. The film ends with his election as President. Now in frail health at home, he is seeing his country somewhat in disarray, with violence on the increase and the economy in free-fall. But that's another movie.
What startled me in this gripping film (among many other things) was the frank, honest portrayal of the eventual conflict and split between the two powerful figures of Nelson and Winnie. She had become increasingly radicalized and alienated, and eventually they had to separate and live apart. The so-talented director of the movie was Justin Chadwick, whom I remember from his directing the 15 episodes of "Bleak House" on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. He later directed a feature, "The First Grader,"which had Naomie Harris (Winnie) in it. William Nicholson wrote the final screenplay, and the producer told us there were 55 drafts of the script before shooting. Crawley was the Director of Photography and the stirring musical score was overseen by Alex Heffes.
As the producer of several biographical films (Billie Holiday, W.C. Fields, and the upcoming Hemingway), I know how hard it is to bring an accurate yet dramatic portrayal of a real person to the screen, so a deep bow to Singh for his fortitude and acumen in doing it so well. He grew up in apartheid Durban. South Africa, and is responsible for a raft of excellent anti-arpatheid and highly dramatic films some 80 films since 1984. I have seen and admired his "Sarafina!" (with Whoopi Goldberg) and "Cry, the Beloved Country." (with James Earl Jones). Nelson Mandela called him "a producer I respect very much -- a man of tremendous ability when he granted him the film rights to the autobiography.
Here on The Huffington Post, I have recently written reviews of two films whose lead actors I have suggested to my brethren in the Academy as potential candidates for the Best Actor award. There was Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave" and then Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club." Now I must add the name of Idris Elba to this short list, for his portrayal of Mandela is absolutely riveting. I am a huge fan of an HBO series of some years ago, The Wire, and I think that was the first time I saw Idris, who played Stringer Bell, the complex, deadly lieutenant of a Baltimore drug empire. Then I saw him in Ridley Scott's Prometheus and American Gangster. He is an actor who will deliver many more fabulous performances in his career, but Mandela will be memorable among them. Naomie Harris played in the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, with Daniel Craig. She brings Winnie Mandela to life with an interesting multidimensional performance about a complex woman.
Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, is a spectacular achievement, a movie with tremendous ramifications for all of us. We still must be vigilant that situations like those depicted in this film are never repeated. And we must honor a man who overcame his own weaknesses and raised the bar of what constitutes heroic behavior to new levels. I bow to you, sir, Nelson Mandela.
All photos in this post courtesy of Jay Weston
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