Long Walk to Freedomby Kavish Chetty / 29.11.2013
At the announcement of this Mandela biopic, “hagiography” was the threat urging off the edge of every critical mouth. Such fears can only be quenched at the personal level: Nelson Mandela is depicted as a fraught personality, a man not beyond fighting with his first wife, fraying his domestic relations, and playboy-ing about with young coquettes. But history is suffering a strange fate in South Africa, and it is from this more expansive vantage that Long Walk to Freedom recapitulates exactly the kind of narrative one would come to anticipate – the triumphal, the messianic; a flattening of political complexity and an exaltation of the deeply mystifying belief that Mandela is the anti-apartheid struggle. Long Walk, then, misses an opportunity to interrupt the old bromides, and gives us instead an elliptical vision of emancipatory processes. A colleague is vindicated in his playful remark that, “I actually can’t think of a single good film about the struggle other than Lethal Weapon 2.”
Jokes aside, there should be something of an anxiety about the casting of Idris Elba to the presidential position. Handsome and impossibly broad of shoulder, the British actor firstly looks nothing like the elder statesman he nobly incarnates – and, having a non-South African play the premier South African role gives leave to the imagination: are actual South Africans once again being reduced to mere mise-en-scène in the cinema of their own history? Casting agent Moonyeenn Lee has quoth, “I was free to cast a South African and I auditioned some extraordinary actors, but the main problem is height. Mandela is a particularly tall man. On average, South African actors are not 1.9 metres.” Mabutho Kid Sithole, President of the Creative Workers Union of South Africa, rejoins excellently: “So no one is tall enough? There’s always some reason to avoid using South African actors and have other people tell our stories. We see this happen over and over. Tomorrow there will be a film about Walter Sisulu, and then what? No one is short enough?”
The second curiosity is that Elba, and it must be said he plays the role with grandeur of presence, sounds nothing like Mandela – that indescribable voice, as though spoken in some internal chamber of the throat, yet amplified with that deep, diplomatic resonance. So, he opts for the favourite of my generation’s playground impersonations, booming all his dialogue in a comic series of off-kilter impressions. This is tamed in its idiosyncrasy only by Naomie Harris, another British actress, whose attempt at the accent of Winnie Madikizela is superbly imprecise (when she says “six”, it’s “seeeex”, the elongation of its centre expanding beyond reason, and inching into the absurd). It is obvious that reasons of prestige and the dull drift of market forces commanded the casting of these two, and the consequence is that local audiences will have to sit through a thoroughly defamiliarised version of recognisable accents – a rather irritating form of alienation, and another resignatory sigh to capital.
The most daring superlative to which Long Walk can be coupled is, perhaps, “competent”. The film moves with restless exposition, from Mandela’s initiation to his inauguration, ranging over something like sixty years, and treating major historical events like quick Shell Ultra-City stops to refuel a bore-some narrative with thrill. On the issue of historical fidelity, for example, the arrest at Liliesleaf Farm is depicted as concluding with a trope-ish car chase scene – apartheid secret-police in hot pursuit of Mandy – which gives ultimate form to the fear that we are no longer in the theatre of history, but that of cinematic trope, where the demands of pacing and genre are paramount. There is a little hope that a film which breathlessly rushes through a curated and abbreviated list of historic episodes (Sharpeville, The Rivonia Trial, the long years of incarceration on Robben Island, the CODESA talks) would have patience enough to register political ambiguity, or offer critique rather than easily-dispatched mystification. Even apartheid itself, as a daily system of perversities, becomes occulted. We see some of its more obvious political signs, like card-carrying and “net blankes” placards; the odd muffled curse of “kaffir”. But the film fails to register the whole everyday ambience of apartheid beyond this, as an epistemic and psychic nexus of indignities, into the “postcolonial” hangover of which we are still blearily awakening at the moment. Nor, in its focus on a professional class of citizen, does the film give adequate account of apartheid’s gruesome divide of land, wealth and education. None of these are, strictly speaking, within its “mandate”, by why should we settle for a textbook account of history, which obliterates the most grotesque details, the very details which are demanded for a proper analysis of the present?
That the film is an “adaptation” is not really much of an excuse for its synoptic format – and it does run for over two hours, besides. The more organic decision would have been to select one or two crucial episodes in Mandela’s life and elaborate outward from this into the magnificent themes he has come to embody. Instead, moments flare on screen and sputter out just as quickly, and dialogue is largely reduced to a froth of platitudes. Even if we were to relinquish the importance of political cinema for challenging the representations of the status quo, this film would still be a rather average affair: imagined via trope, and using each of its key scenes to simply hurtle toward its foregone conclusion: the celebratory thrum of his admirers outside, and Mandela slowly walking out to greet them in his inaugural address.