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David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: What About Mandela?


I didn’t see Mandela in Toronto.

I was too busy. I had too many other movies to see and interviews to shoot and when talent was not available to me at TIFF, the film got pushed aside. On top of that, after Fruitvale Station and The Butler and 12 Years A Slave, not to mention Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club, I was a bit spent on the weighty historic perspective films. I also think that The Fifth Estate got caught up in that big movie experience crossfire with the press, as journalists were getting so caught up in slavery and piracy and Gravity that an intimate piece demanding some thoughtful consideration about how we think about information in the now was just not so appetizing.

I did hear some raves in Toronto about Mandela… but you hear some raves about every single thing in Toronto.

I wandered into the movie, finally, a few weeks ago. I quite like Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, so I was looking forward to what they were going to do. I liked The First Grader, so I was open to Justin Chadwick as the director. But biopics are dangerous territory. I don’t think of Mandela as an Idris Elba-esque NFL defensive end stud. So from a distance, the pieces were not adding up to a “must see” for me.

And then I watched the movie.

I was wrong. The ravers were right.

They had found a way to tell a story that was 625 pages in the book, “Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom” without boring the audience or doing a greatest hits version of the history. And the key was to lean heavily on the love story at the core of this remarkable bit of history. Mandela is not a historical doc, it is a love story that happens to take place in front of the backdrop of one of modern histories most rare occurrences… the full-blown rebirth of entire oppressed culture.

Being that I make my living writing stuff about movies that are competing with one another at this time of year, I naturally compared Mandela to 12 Years A Slave in my mind. But it’s a false comparison on every level, aside from the number of people of color involved with each story and the oppression by the white population. 12 Years is a very specific piece of historic poetry that speaks to the entire issue of slavery, but as reflected in the story of a free man who becomes enslaved. It is Heart of Darkness as a metaphor for Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. It is, in some respects, Schindler’s List, telling a very small story that illustrates the horrors of a larger one.

Mandela is, in some ways, a more daring as a piece of filmmaking, as it dares to recall the length and breadth of a 65 year history. This is not easy. The real comparison is Gandhi, though Mandela doesn’t have the benefit of movie history on which to hang its hat. There is no Gunga Din or Lawrence of Arabia, which while not specific to the story of Gandhi, established a filmic language of nostalgic love which could be reflected and reconsidered in Attenborough’s film.

There have been movies about South Africa and its plight before, some quite good. But these were not iconic films off which Mandela could push. It had to set its own language, make its own case for the historic significance of Apartheid, and tell the story of a man who evolves into his role of leadership over decades, as well as the woman who brought some of the steeliness that became a signature after his youthful passion faded.

At the center of the film are two performances that are, simply, undeniable. Idris Elba grabs hold of all the things that have drawn audiences to him over the last 20 years and puts it all into this telling of a life—a great man who remains a man—showing a range heretofore unasked of him. 50 years… and it never once feels like a stunt. You feel the power this man must have to lead so many so effectively for so many years.

Naomie Harris, who you know but might not know you know, eats the lens from her very first moment in the film as Winnie Mandela. Where do you know her from? She was the female lead of 28 Days Later, chased by zombies. She is the sorceress in the Pirates movies. She was a cop in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. She was the school teacher to an old man (and her young students) in The First Grader. And if you still aren’t sure, she is the new Moneypenny, who starts Skyfall by shooting Bond, long before we know her name. Filmmakers have known that there is something about Naomie for over a decade… but just a few minutes seeing her onscreen as Winnie to know that she is a full-fledged movie star in the making.

And that is another thing that makes Mandela so unique. Elba and Harris are playing two characters who are bigger than life to many people. And these two actors are more than up to the challenge. They are movie stars of the first order. They are both, at heart, character actors. But they are stars in the order of Pacino, Newman, Dunaway, and Winslet. If you aren’t getting that, you aren’t really paying attention.

Justin Chadwick, a skinny little white Brit with long floppy hair, leads the way. He and his production team understand the ambition of the task, the greatness of the man, and most impressively, when to hold back. In order to tell a story of this size, there is constant danger of moving along too quickly or lingering too long on any one element of the film. And even though many of us know the history behind this story quite well, Chadwick & Co manage to make the film a thriller in many ways. How much tension can there be in an elderly man meeting with a bunch of middle-aged men in suits who want him to take a public position? You’ll never feel more of it than you do in this film. Or when Mandela first meets Winnie. Or when he sees Winnie in private for the first time in decades. Or as his relationships develop in jail.

This is one of the most important films of 2013. But it’s not just a history lesson. It is destined to define a time and place… a piece of history… just as do The Grapes of Wrath, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, All The President’s Men, Malcolm X, Reds, and, indeed, Gandhi.

Am I overstating the case? For some, I might be. But my fear is that in a season of many excellent films, Mandela is the great film that very few people seem to be talking about. And that is wholly unacceptable. Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom is exactly the kind of film that, 20 years from now, people look back and just assume that it was nominated for Best Picture… that one of its stars may have taken an Oscar home… that it’s obviously one of the films considered “important.” That’s no small achievement. But me? I’d prefer that all to be true this year. Idris Elba’s next Oscar nomination should be his second. Naomie Harris should be making nervous those who think that Best Supporting Actress is a closed deal.

Mandela now.

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11 Responses to “20W2O: What About Mandela?”

  1. Daniella Isaacs says:

    It’ll be a real shame if this film gets overlooked because people think, “Ah, I’ve seen FRUITVALE STATION, THE BUTLER, and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Enough with the Black movies.” Yet, sadly, I have a feeling that just might happen.

  2. Ryan says:

    Seems a little premature to put Elba/Harris in the realms of Pacino/Newman/Dunaway/Winslet, even though I like both of them.

  3. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Ryan, how about in the realm of Mira Sorvino, Rex Harrison, Art Carney, Goldie Hawn, Nicholas Cage, and Ruth Gordon? They all have Oscars.

  4. Ryan says:

    What a great comparison Daniella. We can ignore the 24+ nominations for the P, N, D, and W quartet. All is equal in an acting career as long as you win once, right?

  5. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Sorry. I somehow misread the David’s original statement. I was thinking of his suggestion that both Elba and Harris deserved nominations. Never mind. Me bad. (And you’re right, he is jumping the gun. It’s one thing to say a single performance is great, it’s another to compare two young careers to those established ones.)

  6. Ryan says:

    Not a problem Daniella. I guess I was just waiting for David’s explanation for jumping the gun on the comparisons. I feel like I’m reading AICN:

    “Elijah Wood will have the career of Tom Cruise based on his performance in LOTR, and Sean Astin will win many OSCARS!!!!!!!!!!!”

    I am also confused about who the audience for this article is supposed to be besides MCN regulars-I think all of us know who Naomi Harris is. Kind of insulting to assume that we don’t or that we’ll take the P/N/D/W comparison without question. Dave-if you read this-isn’t that the kind of ridiculous praise you make fun of people like Travers for?

    “Idris Elba gives the performance of a young Marlon Brandon!!!!!!!!!!”

    Just saying…

  7. Ryan says:

    and yes, the misspelling was on purpose…I kid, I kid…

  8. David Poland says:

    Did I miss the part where I compare Idris to Marlon Brando, Ryan?

  9. Ryan says:


    Read back your own article.

    “They are movie stars of the first order. They are both, at heart, character actors. But they are stars in the order of Pacino, Newman, Dunaway, and Winslet. If you aren’t getting that, you aren’t really paying attention.”

    Obviously I am not paying attention, and I am sick for you to say what you did. Seriously-I feel sick.

    Obviously, I don’t get it.

    But where do you get off? I would like to yell at you, but I’m so frustrated, that it wouldn’t even be worth it. I’ve been waiting to yell at you for the last few months. Don’t act like you’re better than everybody, because you aren’t. I just..I don’t even know-you’re right, I’m wrong…just go.

  10. Ryan says:

    “They are both, at heart, character actors. But they are stars in the order of Pacino, Newman, Dunaway, and Winslet. If you aren’t getting that, you aren’t really paying attention.”

    Um, is comparing IDRIS, who i love and nd as Stringer Bell and Luther I’ve supported, to Brando/Pacino? Are you trying to argue that it is not the same? UM….

  11. Ryan says:

    I give’re right…just argue with LEX, and we’ll be fine. I should have never even tried to doubt the almighty DAVE.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon