Mandela’s Long Walk to Moral Leadership

Review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Directed by Justin Chadwick

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was already going to make a splash. Thankfully, the film is worthy in its own right. Accessible to those who know little about South African history, Mandela lays before us the life of a well-known man, reminds us of his flaws and controversial decisions, and forces us to look at the man who was, as opposed to the man that the popular imagination has created. The movie admirably portrays Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) in a way that preserves the inspiration he provides while casting light on the darker corners of his life.

Before Nelson was a man of integrity, he was a man of weak character. Mandela neglected his first wife, not only for the sake of his cause of equal rights, but also because he lusted after other women and was an adulterer. Before Nelson was a man of peace, he was a man of violence. In the face of an intransigent apartheid regime willing to use deadly force against peaceful demonstrators, Nelson called for the use of violence against violence.

Mandela captures the visceral hatred, the thirst for revenge, simmering among the black population of South Africa. Many films about the civil rights movement in the United States portray the violent posture of groups like the Black Panthers as unacceptable and unconscionable. But such films fail to do justice to history, to show the logical rationale and hence the attractiveness of violence as a means of politics. A persistent theme in Mandela is racial hatred. Many characters whom we sympathize with, particularly Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), are quick to speak of hatred and “making them pay for what they’ve done.” The heightened tensions make the courage and moral leadership demonstrated by Nelson Mandela that much more staggering.

At the height of racial conflict, with marauding bands roaming the streets, Nelson delivered the most shocking televised address. Many at the time are yearning for an all out civil war, to give action to their hatred. As he gives his address, we cannot help but feel the weight of what is about to happen.  “I am your leader,” Nelson says, and a leader tells his followers when they are wrong. And he tells them, You are wrong. Imagine a politician saying that today. Leadership seems to have become merely representative; that is, leaders are supposed to make decisions that their people want them to make. But Mandela led his people on the path of righteousness. To what was undoubtedly met by boos and hisses across the country, Nelson told his followers, “I have forgiven them.”

A significant amount of time in the movie is spent with Mandela on Robben Island, where he wasted away as a prisoner. He is unable to speak with his wife for years on end. Letters he receives have whole sentences cut out as a form of censorship. He, along with his fellow prisoners, are subject to humiliating routines. Nelson loses a child while he is in prison and is forbidden from leaving the island to participate in the funeral. Despite all this, he still says, “I have forgiven them.”

What is the fount of this forgiveness? God is actually mentioned surprisingly little. Perhaps that’s because God-talk was reserved for Desmond Tutu. But someone that has imbibed the American experience cannot help but juxtapose this to the crusade of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the way Christianity and forgiveness came hand in hand. The times that God is mentioned in Mandela are only when his absence is used as a call to take matters into our own hands.

The first time God is explicitly mentioned, Nelson is speaking with his first wife. In frustration with his wife’s trust in God’s sovereignty, Nelson accuses God of non-action and the need for the people to act. Later, Winnie mocks the religion of “God saves,” and, in an endearing way, says, “We must save ourselves.” The final piece is the closing monologue, with Mandela laying on a thick layer of secular humanism, explaining how people are naturally good. Mandela is thus, in a sense, a hymn to the goodness of humanity.

But looking at South Africa today, problems still persist, not to mention the latent racialism still inherent in the United States after the civil rights movement. It’s easy to make statements about humanity’s goodness after a film shows the triumph of good over evil, but when the movie is over, we still have to live with reality.

All the characters have aspects that pull us in and push us away, which gives Mandela real texture. For example, Winnie’s fiery militancy is attractive, especially after we see what she has gone through, but her opposition to Nelson’s attempts at making peace cause us at first to dislike her, yet eventually find ourselves pitying her. Mandela is a complex film that defies attempts to distill it into a short review. It is the story of a man who tries to save his country and finds that the path is through forgiveness. Nelson is even heard repeatedly talking about a leader willing to sacrifice for his people’s freedom.

In April 1998, Nelson is quoted as saying, “Real leaders must be willing to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” Nelson Mandela lived this out. Despite the secular humanism pervasive in Mandela, it cannot help but remind us of Calvary, the crucified Lord who forgives those who despised him, and the reconciliation he brings.


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