Long Walk to Hollywood: Why has Nelson Mandela been so badly served by cinema?

A subject as complex as Mandela deserves a film that will weigh into the grey areas, and while Idris Elba is the best Mandela yet, there's still some way to go in telling the story of his life.

“Did they make the film ages and ages ago and only bring it out when he died?” Pause. A penny dropping. “Did they kill him so the film would be more popular?” That was my 13-year-old last week contemplating the posters on the Underground for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Out of the mouths of babes, eh? But no. On this occasion I would say she is clear of the mark. Even with Harvey Weinstein’s name on the film’s credits as executive producer, I shouldn’t think there was any subterfuge or scurrilousness involved in the timing of the release only weeks after Nelson Mandela’s death.

This is a movie that had to be made at some point, if only because Mandela has been so spectacularly ill-served by cinema to date. Goodbye Bafana was an insult to his name, based on a memoir by one of the Robben Island prison guards that both Mandela and his own biographer had denounced as bogus, and characterised by a white perspective on apartheid that rendered black South Africans as mere extras in their own story. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which dealt with President Mandela’s morale-boosting embrace of the national rugby team, the Springboks, was not much better. Both films were sentimental trifles. A figure as influential and complex as Mandela deserved at least some kind of interrogation.

He doesn’t quite get that in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom either, but at least the breadth and shape of the movie allows for a more full-blooded interpretation by Idris Elba in the title role than either Dennis Haysbert (in Goodbye Bafana) or Morgan Freeman (in Invictus) had the chance to attempt. The film is in every way an orthodox biopic, mapping out its subject’s life chronologically and with only glancing asides to anything of a controversial nature. Even accepting that a two-and-a-half-hour movie cannot squeeze in every incident of note, the brief reference to the brutal practices of the “Mandela United Football Club”, Winnie Mandela’s ANC bullyboys, feels like something of a slur on the life of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, murdered on Mrs Mandela’s watch. (She was convicted of “negligence.”) For all that Naomie Harris underplays delicately, the simplistic nature of the biopic structure enables her to emerge from the movie resembling a Blaxploitation ass-kicker.

From the opening visual cliché—the camera following the young Mandela through a sun-dappled field—to the endless montages that compress historical uprisings and massacres into digestible pellet form, the movie is hamstrung by its chosen form. Luckily it has Elba, who can convey in one loaded look several pages’ worth of pathos, inner conflict, stoicism or resolve. Unfortunately the biopic is not the place to explore the contradictions in a beloved public figure; what Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ends up doing is flattering and sanctifying its subject. Mandela deserves better than kisses and compliments. So does the audience.

Unless a filmmaker opts for the impressionistic approach, the best this genre can hope for is a Reader’s Digest abridgement, a pulped and potted novelisation. “Film is incredibly conventional,” the screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has said. “The three-act structure, the hero’s journey—it’s as tight as a sonnet. And life isn’t like that. So you have two choices. You can chop up the life to fit the structure. Or you can do what I prefer, which is to throw the life up against it and make the structure collapse ... If you want to celebrate the complexity of a human being, you’ve got to bust it all open ... It’s important to challenge the idea that there’s only one interpretation. I mean, there might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being.”

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is on release.

Mandela on trial: Idris Elba in Long Walk to Freedom.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.