The story of the London premiere of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” went around the world. It was unavoidable. That’s because it was news, no matter how you reported it.
Two members of Mandela’s family were scheduled to attend. They were told by cellphone before the screening that Mandela had died. They insisted that the premiere proceed. The audience wasn’t told of his death until afterward. All they could do was observe two minutes of silence.
Time has become the only genuinely meaningful critic of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The movie’s Christmas Day opening – mere weeks after his death – has become a commemorative event of one of the late 20th century’s greatest lives.
The film, though, had a knotty problem: Because it was made while Mandela was still alive – and still symbolizing in his gentle, beaming old age the struggle of human freedom everywhere – the movie simply couldn’t avoid hagiography.
Mandela was a martyr to his cause – 27 years of imprisonment saw to that. And he was as close as our time is ever likely to come to a political saint. His public forgiveness for South Africa’s white minority saw to that.
This was not a life to be messed with.
And you don’t want to get it wrong, either. And there was a disparity there, awaiting all attempts at making a movie of his memoirs. The Mandela the world knew and loved was that wonderful, gentle old man with one of the most beautiful smiles ever given to humankind. The things that he said in that light, lilting voice – about hatred for reasons of color being something humans have to learn because it certainly doesn’t come naturally – had so much resonance because they came to our ears so full of sweet reason. Along with a smile that enchanted the world (and delighted all its photographers) came that voice so full of lightness of spirit, even as he spoke with a combination of eloquence and lawyerly precision.
That’s why I have an odd but insurmountable problem with Idris Elba’s performance in this great role.
Elba is an exceptionally fine actor. But he is almost too virile for the part. It isn’t that there was anything that wasn’t virile about Mandela. (He was a boxer, among other things.) It’s just that Elba’s voice is much too deep. His features are too sharp. His presence as a man is almost unavoidably formidable.
That’s why Elba so memorably played a drug dealer in “The Wire.” That’s why he has played so many cops in his screen life, especially on BBC’s “Luther.”
He’s as good as he can be – especially with the smiles and late-life vocal lightness of Mandela as a political saint in our era. But I can’t avoid the feeling that he just wasn’t ideal for the role.
It’s true, as the film takes pains to tell us, that as a young man Mandela was a gun-toting revolutionary, not a photo op with worldwide celebrities. But what was so terribly threatening about the younger Mandela in his battles against apartheid were his actions, ideas and sayings. It’s what he said and did that made them lock him up for 27 years before he was freed to worldwide acclaim.
Thank heaven for our Internet era. You can find, on YouTube, a 1961 interview with Mandela. What you see is not the grinning, white-haired man of our iconography, true. But he is not inherently threatening as a man.
In a way, Elba is – on screen anyway. That’s why he has so often been cast as cops and thugs and people we are supposed to be leery of.
His performance, again, in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is as good as the actor can make it, but it skews the movie in uncomfortable ways it can’t recover from.
We just don’t get that lightness of spirit that radiated so charismatically out of that old man in his 80s and 90s.
But it’s one of the great stories of our time. And it’s complex, too. Mandela’s struggles against apartheid, his romance and life with Winnie and their political differences (no apostle of forgiveness and accommodation was she), and that astonishing, unforgettable moment when Mandela announced to the world what it clearly knew but couldn’t really get its head around: that South Africa’s president would forgive those who confined him for 27 years.
If ever there were a life that required a cinematic version, it’s this one.
What it proves so conclusively is this: Actors and filmmakers routinely make magic, true. They make miracles commonplace.
But when they come up against real human beings like Mandela, the best they can do in telling his story is to know their lines and not bump into the furniture. They seem very far away from both the real man and the image.
Mandela was unforgettable.
The movie is not. It’s not even close.