While the book Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s own story about the freeing of South Africa with his perspective on what was happening in his country and his family, the movie is a wide-screen view focusing on an amazing marriage and what happened to it when history conspired to separate the two key players. Chadwick chose to make the story about the Mandela couple, not Mandela the man. This strengthened the core by highlighting more of the fallout from the enforced separation and the toll it took on family life.
In the review of the book (blogpost March 25, 2014) I mentioned Mandela’s grief and awareness of the cost to his family of being a freedom fighter. But his point of view, from prison, was incomplete. The movie includes parts of the story he could not tell. It pans vast segments of the country’s painful history, particularly violence in the townships. This graphic backdrop is essential to filling in the missing bits of Winnie’s story.
In one of the rare visits she was able to make to Robben Island, she and Nelson sit on opposite sides of an acrylic window. Admiring her spirit, he asks her where she gets the strength to carry on and she hisses, “I hate them.” Her hatred fed the bitterness that kept her fighting after the battle had been won. She could not release the resentment of how her life and that of her family had been tragically ripped apart. She turned herself into a fighting machine that did not feel.
Naomie Harris, who played the part was intimidated. She said: “She’s so hugely complex, this mixture of tremendous warmth and compassion as well as anger and rage. She’s a warrior as well as a nurturer.” Even today Winnie, the person, conjures up strong feelings both for and against. Where Chadwick showed courage was to allow Harris the decision of how to portray this woman, and in the end, she showed us a genuine person. Even Winnie herself felt the portrayal as just: but acknowledged she would not be watching the movie again; it brought back too much.
In his autobiography, Mandela shared his own secret to Freedom: forgiveness. He had much to resent and did wish for revenge. But he knew he could not hold onto that and be a free man, even outside prison walls. In the movie we see Winnie making the opposite choice. She was not a demon. We cannot begin to understand what 16 months of solitary confinement can do to a person. But Winnie did not come out cowed. She grew up, in her own words, she became defiant, locked into her own private cell of fury.
Ubuntu is the bedrock of Mandela’s forgiveness. We are human beings in context with one other. Much as we ache with Winnie and the price she had to pay in the struggle for freedom, we see her choice as one freely taken. She chose retaliation, violence, and anger. She lost her ubuntu.
For those unable to take the time to read the biography, the movie does a creditable job of telling a painful story and unearthing a past that is already being silted over by time. But the book brings Nelson’s humanity and humility vividly to our attention. His conviction that the best for the people was to move beyond the past and his personal pain shows why he stood with giants in his time.