Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom vetted by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Idris Elba is such a fine figure of a movie star that only racism (its practice and its expectations) can explain why his Black British suave masculinity prevented him from being the new century’s James Bond. Nelson Mandela will have to suffice and in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the bio-pic format provides Elba with his finest film-acting opportunity.

Impersonating the young, athletic Mandela who enjoyed his own virility in the boxing ring, around beautiful women and when facing the impediments of Apartheid, Elba stays true to the biographical history yet touches one’s imagination. Looking back at Mandela-thru-Elba makes it possible to grasp historical, political hopes romantically. This is especially fascinating after the two-week outpouring of pious media coverage following Mandela’s death–all that moralizing, self-aggrandizing mawkishness by pundits and politicians taking the man and his struggle against Apartheid personally. As usual, saying what they think people want to hear, they only manipulate public opinion of themselves.

Elb, who is darker with a longer face than Mandela round, brown countenance, acts the myth, not merely the “nobility”–which is more respectful than media praise that separates the Great Man from his common humanity (and implicitly downplays the still-relevant issue of race and class oppression). Elba’s romanticism is not for those who want to score points by claiming proprietorship over Mandela’s politics, but for viewers willing to understand Mandela’s personality. Ebony Elba provides the erotic source of Mandela’s voice, the cajoling singsong and sometimes spiky assertiveness–his forceful sincerity when the man known as madiba literally put “English” on his rhetoric.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom puts passion in the bio-pic. This is the biggest step yet for Black performers claiming their historical personages in an era of media puppets and partisan stooges yet bereft of truly heroic figures. There’s cause to look back romantically–to oppose the potentially misleading, superficial proprietorship of the dominant media. This possibility began with Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ youngbloods vision in the 1995 Panther (Marcus Chong as Huey Newton, Courtney B. Vance as Bobby Seale), then the 2001 HBO movie Boycott (Jeffrey Wright, Terrence Howard, Erik Dellums and Carmen Ejogo’s matinee-idol embodiments of Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King). These films engage the conflict of fellowship and hero worship. Better to define leaders as credible, sensual, fallible men rather than paragons.

Romanticism like Elba’s makes possible a proper gauge of a man’s risk-taking, sacrifices and persona: After helping bomb a South African factory, firebrand Mandela says “They are calling me a terrorist and I want to set the record straight.” How else to accept his strategy except by recognizing his rhetorical savvy? Director Justin Chadwick (who made the sensitive African education history The First Grader) neatly balances the African National Congress’s aggression with a long view of its impact. He moves through Mandela’s two marriages similarly, as the lothario gives way to the politico, including the politicization of Winnie Mandela made vibrant by Naomi Harris.

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Someday, someone might make a film of Macbeth stature that explores the intricate evolution of hope, pain, resentment, resolution and spiritual change of the Mandelas; their growing together and growing apart. This film hints at it in Winnie’s anger (hate beneath her smile, hurt beneath her poise) and Mandela’s aging into soft wisdom. As Mandela’s post-prison talks with DeKlerk contrasts the adamantine Winnie, Elba’s make-up and stooped walk take on a strange evocation: resembling the elderly Sidney Poitier (who had transcended lack of physical resemblance to play the intellectual soul of Justice Thurgood Marshall).

This Mandela/Poiter similarity is uncanny; two great Black icons connected as facts of historical significance. Politics merge with culture, romance blends with reality. In the astounding Mussolini film Vincere, Marco Bellocchio explored public idolization as relevant to this era of media-collusion–perhaps the most significant perspective of any political film this new century. Bellocchio developed a theory relating sexual hysteria to the fanaticism of hero-worship and political power. Here, when Elba stands in a movie projector’s light beam and rouses an audience to see the projected screen image his way, it is a Vincere moment: Honest, without sanctimony about Mandela being on the right side of victory, just a remarkable demonstration of charismatic, historical fact.

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