The 18-year trek to Madiba’s biopic

The long walk to the projection booth.

New Statesman

“To get finance for an independent movie, a big one like this, there are only ever ten movie actors in the world,” says the director, Justin Chadwick. Anant Singh interjects: “For this role, there were only five.” Chadwick and Singh are describing their journey towards making Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the new biopic of the late icon.

It is 18 years since Nelson Mandela indicated that he would like Singh, a South African producer and fellow veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, to have the film rights to his autobiography – the same length of time as Mandela spent on Robben Island. Eighteen years in which the screenwriter William Nicholson says he “met most of the big black actors” with a view to inviting them to play the title role. Denzel Washington was interested, and then Morgan Freeman looked promising – until he signed up to play Mandela in Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s 2009 dramatisation of the pivotal 1995 Rugby World Cup.

“You approach actors, they look like they’re going to do it, then they don’t. You can lose two years doing that,” says Nicholson, who wrote 33 drafts of the film. Some of these had two Mandelas, one young and one old; some told his tale in flashback; some ended with his release from jail.

“To a certain extent they were too reverential,” Singh says. “It wasn’t gripping. But also, Mandela’s life is so grand. Which bits do you put in, which do you leave out?”

The version released into cinemas goes in a straight line from the 25-year-old Mandela (played with luminous power by Idris Elba) to his presidency and the split from Winnie (Naomie Harris), whose beefed-up role symbolises how wrong things might have gone if the wiser Mandela had not prevailed. Nicholson says: “Winnie represents one response to the struggle, which is to go violent; Mandela represents the other, which is to go towards forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Other than with events surrounding the 1989 killing of Stompie Moeketsi, in which Winne was implicated – “Too complicated,” Nicholson says; “you couldn’t do it in less than ten minutes” – the film doesn’t flinch from portraying Winnie’s flaws. It shows her as a young woman thrown into hell and emerging with a ferocious spirit. Singh watched the film with her and says she is happy with her portrayal.

“She always pushed for violent reforms, as we’ve said. I had a discussion [with her] before we started, where I said, ‘I’m going to show you in this film, whatever is true; I’m hiding from nothing. But when you see the film I believe you will come out very strong.’”

Whether the audience shares Singh’s view of Winnie or not, it is on Idris Elba in the part of her husband that all eyes will be fixed. Three inches taller and a great deal broader than the man most of the world first saw as a septuagenarian, Elba looks like he’d have excelled at Mandela’s favoured sport, boxing. He is also believable as the young lawyer who loves music and dancing and women – too much for his first wife – and who, though an activist, exudes a joie de vivre, until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 convinces him that the days of marching and banner-waving have passed.

In otherwise mixed reviews, Elba’s performance has won unanimous acclaim. He excels as the wounded cuckold of later years, his face by now buried in prosthetics. (“Is that me?” Mandela laughed when Singh showed him the stills.)

Yet many have criticised the film as ponderous, weighed down by the momentousness of its material. Although that is a harsh judgement, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is undeniably old-fashioned. The vogue for new historical biopics is more micro than macro, isolating a crucial chapter in the subject’s life (think Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Invictus or The King’s Speech) rather than telling the panoramic story in the manner of Gandhi, Long Walk’s most obvious comparison.

“If you do it starting with an older man and flashing back and coming forward, you’re doing something people may think is contemporary film-making, but you’re losing the moral growth,” Nicholson says.

The day after we spoke, the film had the most dramatic UK premiere possible when Mandela’s death was announced during the screening. Singh had told me the previous day that the former president’s poor health had prevented him attending the premiere in South Africa. “But it’s great we have the film done while he’s alive, even though he’s not able to sit with us and watch it,” he said. And of the 18-year haul to getting the story into cinemas, Singh said: “You get on with it and try your best. Pieces fall in, pieces fall out, the script isn’t working, but you hang in there.

“As Madiba says, it seems impossible until it’s done.”