Winnie Is the Real Storyteller in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’

“There’s going to be trouble,” observes Evelyn Mandela (Terry Pheto). “I want to go home.” She and her husband Nelson (Idris Elba) have arrived at the Alexandra bus boycott in 1967, where ANC members are rousing a crowd even as policemen gather, their faces grim. As Evelyn frets, Nelson looks out on the crowd as it begins to move forward. “I must go with them,” he tells her, kissing her goodbye as he joins the march.

And with that, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom suggests, Nelson Mandela is transformed. Before now, the film shows him to be a mostly successful lawyer, clever in the courtroom, if frustrated by racist laws, as well as a man who indulges his sexual appetites with multiple women in gauzy close-ups. That he now takes up the anti-apartheid cause as such is marked by another sort of shot: Nelson appears amid the crowd, alongside two of his about-to-be-longtime ANC compatriots, Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa).

Evelyn is demoted from worried wife and mother to non-entity, briefly angry when he comes home late after a one-night with a fan, then off-screen, a passing reference during a conversation Nelson has with their son Thembi. Just moments later, in the movie’s irksomely episodic timeline, Nelson finds his great partner in the cause, Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris).

The start of this relationship is reduced to movie convention: spotting her at a bus stop, he offers her a ride (she assures him her decision to accept is not irrational: “You’re not a stranger, you’re Nelson Mandela”), and they engage in a montage of glorious “coupley” activities — walking in sunlight, agreeing on vaguely philosophical questions (“There is no time, only now!”), holding hands and kissing oh, so bubbly.

Their union affirmed by two wedding ceremonies, one where Winnie dresses in Western white and another where they both don traditional Xhosa costumes, Winnie then appears in a series of scenes looking pregnant or with babies on her hips. Supporting Madiba (Mandela’s nickname, meaning “father”) unconditionally, she waits patiently while he rallies populations or meets with his fellow organizers, burns his identification card or engages in what he calls “sabotage”.

When he’s deemed a terrorist and arrested, as everyone knows he must be, the news is delivered to her via a boy dashing through their township, leaping over fences and racing through alleys, until he reaches her yard and yells out, “They caught him!” Winnie’s face here, framed by the narrow doorway of her home, does all the emotional work you might expect, her eyes wide, her mouth twisted in horror — and her baby on her hip.

That emotional work will only become more complicated, more explicit, and less convincing as Nelson Mandela and other ANC members are sent into a courtroom and then to prison. Winnie again and again appears as the sign of her husband’s sacrifice, first as she leaves the Department of Justice in Pretoria, making her way down long white steps, she raises her fist and repeats the Xhosa call, “Amandla!” (“Power!”), soliciting the usual response from the crowd, “Awethu!” (“To the people!”). Here again, Winnie’s face is brilliant and transcendent, telling a long and complicated story in a few seconds: dedicated to the same cause as her husband, she endures brutality at the hands of policemen and prison guards, the stress of raising and supporting her two daughters, and the ever urgent adulation by millions of her famous husband.

This film is her famous husband’s story, and so it’s not surprising that Winnie or Evelyn or Winnie and Nelson’s daughters Zindzi and Zenani all appear as supportive architecture, afterthoughts rather than fully developed characters. Indeed, Nelson’s opening reverie lays out this structure: from a romantic scene set in the grassy plains of his childhood home to his own “dream,” as he describes it, as house filled with women and children — “Those I have loved most in the world” — he explains the thrill and burden of his dedication to the cause, the loved ones lost or abandoned, the family that goes on without his presence, the ideal for which he fights, that is, the intact and expanding family, its members smiling and moving in slow motion, filling an entire house, every room and every hallway.

Though this dream appears at film’s start and end, it’s never quite integrated into the film’s imagining of Mandela’s experience. As this dream apparently comes to him while he’s imprisoned for decades at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison, he comes to understand his mission not as one of vengeance but as one of reconciliation and — importantly — election, the dreamy figures of family show up as clichés.

This is rather a difficult trick with Winnie, a notoriously vibrant and unusual individual, and yet the movie manages it, whether gesturing toward her trauma in prison, her repeated declarations of how much she hates her oppressors or her wonderful, warm embraces of her daughters. That Nelson and Winnie took different routes to their shared end, as he became more committed to some version of democracy and she turned more militant, the distance between them is made visible, first as the screen between them when she visits him in prison and then in her hard face when he is at last released and approaches her in their home.

Madiba narrates this distance and damage from his wife, his greatest devotee, as a version of the distance and damage done to the nation, the costs of hate and fear, the wages of racism — her embodiment of the very trouble from which Evelyn turned away. As Mandela speaks to the nation on television, watched anxiously by President De Klerk (Gys de Villiers) and his aides and counselors, he invokes the idea of what hate does to people.

As the white officials breathe a sigh of relief over his insistence on peace rather than war as a way forward, the camera cuts to Winnie, her face again revealing a long and terrible tale, the liquor in her glass denoting both her own self-medication and her loss to Nelson. It’s a cliché, again, indicating Mandela’s wisdom and virtue by contrast. But this cliché, like the others here, has its own cost, undermining the great man’s story by undermining the stories of the women around him.

RATING 4 / 10