The 400-Word Review - Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

By Sean Collier

December 27, 2013

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When Nelson Mandela died early this month, I speculated that his passing would inevitably lead to better notices and awards-season accolades for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic that was just hitting coastal screens around that time. Such is often the case; when fate propels an immortal figure into the headlines, the artistic accounts of that individual are given a morbid but understandable boost. Such was the case in 2004, when Ray Charles’ passing coincided with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of the performer in Ray.

But Nelson Mandela is a much greater figure than Ray Charles, in ways measurable and immeasurable. Biopics have notorious difficulty summarizing complex lives in a matter of hours; if such a task was difficult for those looking to define Charles or Johnny Cash, it’s impossible when the subject is Nelson Mandela. (What’s more, Mandela is a modern figure, not yet receded into legend; in short, that makes the Lincoln treatment unavailable.)

Directed by Justin Chadwick from a script by recent Les Miserables adapter William Nicholson, and based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom feels like a history class in which only one day’s lecture has been given over to South Africa. We get brief notes on Mandela’s childhood, upbringing and young adulthood, as the filmmakers can’t help but assume the audience’s basic knowledge of apartheid as a given; as we rush through the struggles that led to Mandela’s imprisonment, even a viewer watching closely will only be able to draw a rough sketch of the man.


This isn’t the fault of Idris Elba, the deeply talented actor tasked with portraying Mandela. Elba’s casting and performance received the approval of Mandela before the film’s release, and Elba captures the leader in voice and spirit; what little poetry exists in the bland script is carefully drawn out by the actor and a game, if forgettable, supporting cast.

Unfortunately, the project is just too limited to truly succeed. There’s enough to like, and the package is handsome. But there is no medium that can acceptably summate the life of Mandela, and one that tries to confine to biopic norms is doomed from the start. Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus — more flawed, but more satisfying — may have done a better job by picking one episode in the leader’s life and running with it. When a movie about rugby does better, your biography missed the mark.

My Rating: 7/10
Overall Rating on 79/100

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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