News Column

'Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom' focuses on leader's journey battling racial inequality, becoming president

November 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 26--Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's election as the first black president of South Africa. The victory signaled a symbolic end of apartheid, a brutal practice of racial segregation enforced by the white minority in the country upon its black citizens, but it was not the end of the struggle that the now 95-year-old Mandela took on throughout his life.

Opening today is "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," a new film based on the former South African leader's 1994 autobiography. The movie stars British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Anant Singh, the film's producer, has been trying to make a film about Mandela's life even before the anti-apartheid activist was released from prison after 27 years in 1990, the year apartheid legally ended.

While other films have been made about Mandela, none has had the family's blessing. Most have focused on particular moments in his life, like 2009's "Invictus," which starred Morgan Freeman as the president. The challenge in making "Long Walk," however, was that it could easily be a miniseries.

Mandela was born in 1918, a year after John F. Kennedy. While his long political life is interwoven with the complex history of a divided nation, his personal life, which had some messy parts, also had a major impact on the country, particularly his marriage to his second wife, Winnie, a towering and controversial figure in South Africa.

Even the film's director, Justin Chadwick, had to be convinced they could make a film out of the autobiography, but a trip to South Africa where he met many of those involved in the struggle convinced him that the story could be distilled into a movie that was "as much about apartheid as it was about the relationship between Nelson and Winnie."

The script was written by William Nicholson, Oscar nominated for his work on "Gladiator" and "Shadowlands."

"Bill probably wrote screenplays of four or five hours long that were faithful to the book," says Chadwick, who is known for the acclaimed miniseries "Bleak House" and the feature "The Other Boleyn Girl." "But we wanted the film to be a personal story as much as it is about apartheid. It's also about love and forgiveness."

Elba ("Luther" and the two "Thor" movies) says the film's goal was "to make Mandela a human being." The actor wasn't able to meet with the leader, who is in frail health, to prepare for the role; instead, he talked with those who had been with the African National Congress leader during the anti-apartheid struggle, who told him how much Mandela's presence meant.

"Part of understanding him was understanding South Africa," says Elba, 41, who was born in London but whose parents are African immigrants. "I was a bit prejudiced about the place, to be honest. My dad was all about Mandela when I was growing up. But I thought for the role, I had to understand the country's politics as it was then and is now."

Known for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and as the new Miss Moneypenny in Sam Mendes' reboot of the James Bond franchise, Harris did meet with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who she says "cooperated massively" in the making of the film.

"She told me I was the first actress playing her to sit down with her and ask about her life, and that's the least she would expect."

The cooperation of the now 77-year-old Madikizela-Mandela is somewhat surprising in context of the film. Winnie and Nelson married in 1958, separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. They had been together less than five years when Mandela went to prison, but their political paths diverged long before he was released.

In the decades of imprisonment, Mandela, who had been convicted of inciting riots and then treason, tried to raise political pressures to end apartheid, feeling armed conflict ultimately wouldn't work. Rarely able to see her husband, Madikizela-Mandela, who was raising her two daughters, was continually harassed -- often brutally -- by white authorities and jailed for a while. The mistreatment sent her down a path of militancy, joining those who felt violence was needed to end apartheid.

In the film, Harris says she plays the younger Madikizela-Mandela "as full of joy. She's excited by life, she's open, she's passionate, she's dynamic and intelligent. But as an older woman, she's full of rage, much more closed, a warrior."

One of the more telling scenes in the film shows Madikizela-Mandela inciting a crowd to go after traitors that leads to the "necklacing" of a suspected informer. Necklacing is the horrifying practice of executing someone by forcing a rubber tire filled with gasoline around a victim's chest and arms and then setting it on fire.

Harris says everyone -- the director, producer and those she talked to in South Africa -- had very strong ideas about who Madikizela-Mandela was, but they were all very different.

"So for me, it was how do you put those disparate ideas together in one whole woman? My main question for Winnie was, 'Who are you and how do you want to be portrayed?'?" To her surprise, Harris says Madikizela-Mandela "gave me carte blanche to create her as I wanted and that's what I needed."

As Harris, Elba and Chadwick were sitting outside on a beautiful Los Angeles day, South Africa and its troubles seemed far away. The night before, the three had attended the glamorous Britannia Awards, where Elba received the Humanitarian Award for his work in England for the Prince's Trust. The organization helps young people with disadvantaged backgrounds.

Chadwick says in making "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" he wanted to drop the audience inside the story with 360-degree sets and by using people "still living the struggle."

The film depicts some gut-wrenching moments. How did Harris and Elba feel playing in scenes where white authorities would abuse and humiliate the Mandelas physically and with racial epithets?

"The men playing the prison guards had a job to do, and Justin made them go there," Elba says. "Many of them were very sweet guys, but I told him to bring it. It had to be done."

He adds that when he saw Harris' scenes where her character was battered, he felt "heartbroken. I would be mad at Justin for putting her through that stuff, but it could not have been any other way. We needed it to be real."

Harris agrees, noting that the mistreatment ultimately changed Madikizela-Mandela. She then quotes a line from the movie in which Mandela says, "Their only victory is what they did to Winnie."

Chadwick says that while the film's backdrop is "apartheid and the pernicious nature of racism, one reason we made this movie is because we wanted to be relevant in the times we live in now, and Mandela's life gives you a way forward. It gives you hope."

Harris says after the premiere, Madikizela-Mandela said that the importance of the film was to show how hard-won freedom was and to remind people not to take it for granted.

South Africa continues to struggle today. Despite all the changes that have occurred since apartheid, the country's whites -- who are less than 10 percent of the population -- still control most of the wealth.

"It's going to take a long time to get over the legacy of apartheid -- more than 20 years," Harris notes.

"For me, the film is a license for those still in the struggle to keep going," Elba adds.

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(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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