In apartheid South Africa marriage between black and white people was prohibited and white-only jobs sanctioned. Areas designated as white were destroyed by bulldozers and the black population living there forced into segregated townships. Thousands of protestors who challenged this system died after being imprisoned and tortured.
It was Nelson Mandela who led the struggle to free the country of this racial division. In a new film by Justin Chadwick, Idris Elba (of the Wire and Luther) plays out a sweeping 141 minute chronicle of his life covering his time as a lawyer in Johannesburg, his joining the African National Congress (ANC), helping form its armed wing, his 27 years in prison and his election as the first black President of South Africa.
Though the chronological structure of the film covers the major events in his life, it makes for slow watching. This adapted version of Mandela’s 1995 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom breezes through key issues and does not fully represent the brutality of the apartheid system or the western governments that supported it.
A case in point: only a fleeting scene is dedicated to Mandela and other members of the ANC boarding the white-only section of a segregated train in protest, only to be chased off by white guards. The film conveniently doesn’t mention the key role US intelligence played in Mandela’s arrest in 1962, or the fact that he was classed by western governments as a ‘terrorist’ until very recently.
To the film’s credit it does recreate a disturbing portrayal of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which police opened fire on unarmed protestors assembled outside the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville, killing 69.
As for the characters themselves, it is unclear which is more disturbing: the ageing cream that makes Idris Elba look like the older version of Nelson Mandela that will be most recognised by the public, or the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any left for his wife, Winnie, whose appearance stays the same throughout the 27 years he is in prison.
Winnie, played by Naomie Harris, was Mandela’s second wife and also advocated freedom from apartheid. As part of the struggle, the film also covers her time in prison separated from her children.
Two years after he is released from Robben Island, Mandela leaves Winnie; his third wife, Graca Machel, doesn’t even make it into the film. In his earlier years Mandela cheats on and beats his first wife Evelyn, and his family life raises questions as to whether the integrity so celebrated about his life should really have started at home.
The release of Long Walk to Freedom came 20 days after Mandela’s death. After he died his words “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” was looked back on; Mandela long supported the Palestinian cause.
Much like apartheid South Africa, Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank are fragmented by Israeli settlement blocs, a system of segregated roads and buses, military checkpoints and the apartheid wall that cuts through villages. Whilst the black population of South Africa carried pass books that restricted their movements and restricted them from the white areas, Palestinians hold West Bank, Gaza, or Jerusalem ID cards and in practice it is Israel who controls how each are delegated. Palestinians who live in Gaza may have families in the West Bank who they are not allowed to see.
Chadwick’s Long Walk to Freedom is both a reminder that oppression still exists across the world, and a celebration of what humanity can achieve when it fights against it.