Making the Grades
My local screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opened with a moment of silence. It seemed fitting as Nelson Mandela died only hours earlier (on December 5, 2013).
The movie shows his life beginning in a rural village where he undergoes the traditional ceremony inducting him into manhood. Shortly afterwards he leaves home. Trained as a lawyer, he defends his clients in judicial system run by the white South Africans. But increasingly he senses a brewing unrest among his fellow blacks that want the power to control their own lives.
However power is a heady thing whether it is in the hands of blacks or whites. In the virile young attorney (played by Idris Elba), it attracts the attention of the African National Congress (ANC) and scores of activists looking for a leader. In the hands of the South African prison guards, it becomes a catalyst for yelling, bullying and demeaning acts including forcing the prisoners to strip down and stand in the rain. In the hands of the angry black majority, it unleashes acts of retaliation, riots, demonstrations and bombings.
When members of the ANC approach Nelson Mandela he initially hesitates to join their ranks. He has a new wife (Terry Pheto) and a young family. But the lure of the political movement eventually draws him in, pulling him farther and farther away from his family. After he is involved in an adulterous relationship, his wife Evelyn leaves with their children. Then, only a short time later, he meets and marries Winnie Madikisela (Naomie Harris).
Based on Mandela’s autobiography, the films over two hours long. It covers seven decades from his childhood to his inauguration as South Africa’s first black President. For the most part the movie paces well with strong performances from Elba, Harris and others. It highlights events surrounding the forced segregation of Apartheid and the escalating violence that lead to Mandela’s arrest and 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island and in other prisons.
Patience and unrelenting resolve prove to be Mandela’s greatest traits as he evolves from protester to militant subversive and then to peace promoter. But his life is not without its dark moments. While the film portrays some of the terrorist acts committed by the ANC, including bombings, rioting and dousing people in gasoline before setting them on fire, it neglects to address several other aspects of the Apartheid fight and the organization’s ties to Communism. In the later years, it is Winnie who is portrayed as the aggressive and embittered attacker spurred on the violent acts, while time appears to have tempered Mandela’s approach. Instead of fighting, he is canny, if not elusive, in his negotiations with members of F.W. de Klerk’s government. In the film, it is his strong moral resolve that eventually changes a nation—but at a huge personal cost to the imprisoned man who is unable to raise his children, maintain his marriage or even attend the funerals of his mother and son.
News footage and re-enactments fill in the details for those unfamiliar with the historical events. Although the story is based on facts, the scenes of riots, bombings, shootings and bloody attacks are too intense for most younger teens and certainly children.
However Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a powerful obituary. And at his death, it is likely many North Americans will remember Mandela as the man who professed, “No one is born hating another person. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
What things do the warden and guards on Robben Island do to humiliate the prisoners? Why do Mandela and the other black prisoners request long pants instead of shorts? What derogatory terms do the guards use? How are intimidation and humiliation used against the prisoners? How does Mandela’s relationship with some of the guards change over time? Why does it change? Why does Mandela refuse to let the young boys at his home make crude gestures at the guards?
While Nelson and Winnie are both arrested and imprisoned, how do they react differently to their suffering? Does Winnie’s role as a mother make it more difficult for her to be away from her children? Can a person choose whether he or she becomes bitter to such treatment? How do their reactions impact their marriage? What does Mandela mean when he says, “I love who she was, but we change over time”? What does Winnie mean when she says, “We have both been alone too much”?
How does Mandela’s measured approach differ from the young militants who are later imprisoned on Robben Island?
Read more about these pivotal events and places in South African history:
Learn more about the real Nelson Mandela.
This film portrays Mandela as the hero of the anti-Apartheid movement. How might white South Africans who lived during the uprisings view this movie differently? How might the other contemporary leaders of the ANC feel about their role in the story?