Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: A Tidy British Tour of a Great African Life
The first thing you must understand about this movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is released the same month the great man died, is that it's not a South African film but a British one. I tell you the truth when I say that there's more South Africa in District 9 than in Mandela, a film that has a lot of what The Queen has: Great Britain. Similarly, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi is not Indian but British. The reason Gandhi and Mandela are of the same species of cinema is that they have identical political cores—a social ideology that is, though progressive (reformism), historically British.
Mandela begins well enough: We see children and mothers in a humble house; we see the golden grass of a field; we see naked black African boys walking into a river; we see a young Mandela in a suit walking down a busy city street; we see Mandela the lawyer defending a black African who has been accused, by her boss, of stealing underwear. All of this is fine and dreamy, and Idris Elba (a British actor) quickly assures us that his portrayal of Mandela will be professional. But then things start to get too smooth as the film translates messy historical events (through the purifying lens of British reformist politics) into a clear narrative: Here, he is the ladies' man with no real interest in politics (we see him seducing beautiful women). Next is his political awakening and decision to join the African National Congress, then comes the shift in his position from nonviolence to violence against the state, and so on (imprisonment on Robben Island, his world-historical meetings with President F.W. de Klerk, his split from Winnie Mandela). Through all this, we see exactly the historical substance of British reformism: No one can stop progress, and progress is always represented by a great man. If this film were made by a South African, there would be much less certainty about the promises of progress.