The idea of Idris Elba polarises. To women, he’s a sex symbol. Handsome, tall, bearded and blessed with a pleasing to the ear British accent. To men he’s another of those figures we are somewhat envious of. To compensate for our inadequacies, we socialise ourselves into thinking that his sex appeal is responsible for the modest success he has earned.
I used to like Mr Elba for no other reason than he was an Arsenal fan. And then he hosted a disastrous concert I attended in Lagos last Christmas. Whilst he was not at fault for the logistical flaws, his visible intoxication didn’t help. When I read that he was cast in the new Mandela bio pic, I was apathetic. The lines above were written before I saw the movie. Mr Elba, welcome to the A List. This is Will Smith in Ali, Denzel in Malcolm X, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Forrest Whittaker in Last King of Scotland territory. The stuff on which careers are defined and laurels won.
The accent is close and the mannerisms and style of walking evolve over the length of the movie flawlessly.One of the common criticisms of the Mandela story is the way a lot of his allies and comrades have been airbrushed out of history but that’s a gripe that can’t be leveled here. Mandela as the leader of this group became the face of the struggle. When a concert was held at Wembley in 1988, it was in celebration of his birthday and it was his face that was emblazoned on shirts and badges, with the ‘Free Mandela’ slogan. Justice is done in that the likes of Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Billy Nair,Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Dennis Goldberg whilst being minor characters are seen all through. The Rivonia trial where they are sentenced to life imprisonment is crucial to the story and we see their friendship evolve together in prison.
My Sociology tutor in A Levels used to say “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” referring to Mandela and whilst I got it then, I get it better now. When convinced that safe protests would not be efficient, he resorted to violence and we see him go incognito as they bomb buildings and wreak havoc to secure equality in apartheid South Africa.
This might be the most emotionally stirring movie in recent history. Many a time I winced as the imagery struck me. The Racism angle is well covered and there’s an interesting scene at the beginning where a young Mandela in his day job as a Lawyer defends a black lady who had been employed as a help to a white woman but was accused of theft. As Mandela proceeds to cross examine the white woman, she protests to the Judge “How dare he talk to me like that?” It is worth pointing out that he does not say anything out of turn. In the end, she walks off the stand upset and the case is dismissed. The Soweto and Sharpeville massacres and the policy that stipulated black people carry passes around is well explored.On the family front, it’s well documented that by choosing to pick a battle on behalf of his people his familial relations suffered. His first wife leaves him when she feels she has taken enough.
It is just after this he meets Winnie, the woman who he would be most closely identified with. The scenes where they court are affectionate and it is very clear that she is the woman of his life. Whilst he is in prison, one of the heart wrenching moments come when he receives a telegram that his son from his first marriage has passed away. The other comes when his older daughter from his marriage with Winnie visits him (It’s worth noting that he was not allowed to see his kids till they turned 16. The daughter in question was not yet 3 years old when he left) and as she demands to touch him the Prison Warder reminds her there’s no contact allowed. He tells her upon seeing her “the face I’ve had in my head all these years is of you as a baby”.
Imagine not being able to see the ones you loved for more than a decade and the correspondence you share is inconsistent as when your letters aren’t delivered, the ones you receive are red acted to the point you can barely make sense of them. The guilt he feels is obvious but he never wavers from his calling.Just as it would be near impossible to watch the movie without crying, it would also be near impossible to leave the cinema hall not feeling inspired to start a conversation about a revolution.
To channel Edward Burke, whilst it’s not possible for one of us to just get up and demand change, it’s no excuse for nonchalance. The constant theme in the movie is that whilst we can’t do it on our own, harnessing the power of the collective can prove the difference. The Mandela character uses his hands to illustrate: to make a fist, all the fingers have to be clenched. It is this analogy that is used when Mandela is summoned into the ANC by the hierarchy. The same analogy is used when an older Mandela comes across a young crop of Politicians in prison who chastise he and his allies for giving up on the struggle. The sense of duty to secure change is never compromised. Upon getting to prison and he and his colleagues are given shorts while Kathrada who has Indian origins gets trousers, he takes it upon himself to ensure they get “long trousers” too and when he succeeds, the prison erupts in celebration. It’s one of the feel good moments.
Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie shines bright. For all her flaws, Winnie deserves commendation for the way she waged war on his behalf when he was incarcerated. She was imprisoned for 16 months but her fire never dims. She ensures the world doesn’t forget about her man and there’s a great scene where she urinates on a white policeman who speaks to her disrespectfully. Of course, this earned her a serious beating. Her evolution is also an interesting study as she hardens and grows fearless. What sells her short is her desire to get revenge which was at odds with the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation her husband proposed. This lies at the heart of the tension between them which would result in the end of their marriage. Her cheating on him while in prison is forgivable when one considers the length of time she was without her husband for. Harris’s portrayal is powerful and would win her fans.
The greatest compliment I can pay this movie is that it would be the go-to option for generations to come who seek familiarization with Mandela. However, this also detracts from its greatness in that by seeking to condense a life with so many milestones into just over 2 hours, some of them don’t get the treatment they deserve. There’s a scene with hints of domestic violence that I’ll like to know more about and that is one of the lesser aspects of the movie. The movie closes to a narration that ends with the lines “People learn to hate. They can be taught to love for love comes from the human heart”.
There’s also a very awesome sounding U2 song titled ‘Ordinary Love’ recorded specially for the movie.
By Oluwamayowa Idowu