The 18-year trek to Madiba’s biopic

The long walk to the projection booth.

“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.”

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide