Aspen Times Weekly: Mandela lives, vibrantly, in biopic |

Aspen Times Weekly: Mandela lives, vibrantly, in biopic

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," starring Idris Elba, shows Monday, Dec. 23 in Aspen Film's Academy Screenings series.
Keith Bernstein |

‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’

Showing in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

Monday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m.

Wheeler Opera House

Justin Chadwick is familiar with the reputation of the biopic: “Spinach — good for you,” Chadwick said.

Signing on to direct “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” based on Nelson Mandela’s 1995 biography, Chadwick was determined to create something more honest, more reflective of the full reality, than the standard biopic. Chadwick, a 45-year-old Brit, spent considerable time in South Africa and while there he didn’t just research the official history of the freedom fighter and former president, but made sure to meet the people who knew Mandela. Chadwick included in the film people who have worked with Mandela, and who continue to carry out Mandela’s vision of making South Africa a more just and tolerant society. Prison scenes were shot at the real Robben Island, where Mandela served years as a political prisoner. The intention was to make “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” feel more like a living story than a staid history from a dusty textbook.

“I went to South Africa and was able to talk to people who knew the struggle, knew Mandela,” Chadwick, who lived for a year in South Africa, said from Chicago. Chadwick opted to use those people, not anonymous extras, for the film’s crowd scenes, a decision he says provided the film’s intense quality. “If we got the camera right in there amongst it, surrounded the audience with a 360-degree drama, we could make it real. Like a modern drama, and not do that thing of a traditional biopic. The crowd was real people who lived the struggle, are living the struggle.”

If Chadwick had any doubts about having taken pains to include Mandela’s actual associates and give the film the fullest dose of reality, they were erased earlier this month. During the royal premiere screening of “Mandela” in London, on Dec. 5, the South African government announced the news that Mandela had died, in Johannesburg, at the age of 95. In attendance for the screening, along with Prince William, were Mandela’s two daughters. Following the screening, Chadwick, who had learned of the death a half-hour before the film began to roll, and other members of the cast and crew, got on stage and told the audience the news. At that moment of heightened emotion and scrutiny, Chadwick was satisfied with the way he had told the story.

“Mandela knew what we were doing; he understood what we were telling,” Chadwick said. “He never insisted on anything. I always had the assurance that he was there with us.”

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” will be shown on Monday, Dec. 23 on the opening day of Aspen Film’s 22nd annual Academy Screenings series. The film opens in general release on Dec. 25, but this will be its second advance screening in Aspen. It also showed in September as part of Aspen Filmfest, where it was voted the Audience Favorite. “Mandela” is currently up for three Golden Globes, including one for Idris Elba, who stars as Mandela, in the best actor-drama category.

Chadwick nearly passed on the Mandela project. His last film, “The First Grader,” was also about an African freedom fighter, with an inspirational tone. Moreover, he was concerned about the scope of the story of Mandela, an attorney who was imprisoned for 27 years for defying South Africa’s segregationist laws before becoming, in 1994, the country’s first black president and the first president to be elected in a truly democratic vote. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in his homeland, the informal titles of “Madiba” — “Father” — short for “Father of the Nation.”

“How do you reduce that into a two-hour, 20-minute film?” Chadwick said. “It would be a 50-part mini-series and you still wouldn’t tell the whole story.”

Ultimately, Chadwick saw the opportunities. There was a chance to make a humanist statement: “If the film can help inspire a new generation through Mandela’s words, that’s what I set out to do,” he said.

On the artistic side, there was the chance to raise the level of the biopic. Chadwick insisted on shooting on location, at times in the actual spots where historic events in the battle against apartheid had occurred. Not only were crowd scenes made up of the actual people who had fought alongside Mandela, they also dressed for absolute accuracy: In a scene of Mandela being saluted, the generals appeared in their own uniforms.

“It was almost like shooting a live event,” said Chadwick, who was previously best known for the 2008 costume drama “The Other Boleyn Girl.” “I felt responsible to be absolutely true to the details because that would form the experience. We got the community actually involved. So Idris had to act in front of people who witnessed it. That atmosphere added energy to it.

“That was a challenge in pre-production. That’s not the way movies are done, period movies, movies about such a great man. It would have been easier to use a sound stage, a green screen, control things. But people are still living this struggle today. It felt very important to have these people, on both sides, involved.”

Gritty in tone, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” also raises tough issues. A major focus of the movie is the personal sacrifices Mandela made, in essentially giving up his family life to fight apartheid. The film is up-front about the effect Mandela’s extra-marital affairs had on his wife and political comrade, Winnie (played by Naomie Harris).

But the film also frames Mandela unquestionably as a hero. To Chadwick, much that heroism had much to do with Mandela putting aside personal concerns — his family, freedom, comfort and legacy — to pursue the liberty of his people and the integrity of his country.

“The cost of what they did to him as a man and a father and a husband — that’s why he was a hero. He was true to his people,” Chadwick said. “On a personal level that must have been painful, and he hid that pain. He put himself selflessly back. He was prepared to die for his principles because he thought we were all born equal. He was completely pure to his beliefs.”

Giving the film a sense of moral gravity wasn’t among Chadwick’s challenges. He recalls being horrified by South Africa’s official policy of racism, and he remembers watching Mandela’s triumphant release from prison, in 1990, a time when the apartheid struggle was raging. To Chadwick, issues of right and wrong flowed on a grand scale from Mandela’s struggle.

“The real revelation for me was, I hadn’t realized how bad it got,” he said. “That country was on the tipping point of a bloodbath.”

If “Mandela” leans toward giving a glow to its subject, Chadwick believes the treatment is deserved. Mandela didn’t only save South Africa from civil war, he remained committed to his method of non-violence.

“People thought the way forward was through violence,” Chadwick said. “How he managed to see a relatively peaceful way forward is one of the extraordinary legacies and I can’t think of another example of someone accomplishing that. None of the politicians knew what to do. He did it against all odds and with great forgiveness. He was able to see that racism was born of ignorance and stupidity.”

While the film ends on a soaring note — as intense as the tone may be, this is still cinema — Chadwick notes that South Africa has a ways to go as a society. He believes that Mandela’s guidance will continue to be a signpost.

“He was right. The only way forward is through peace,” Chadwick said. “Isn’t that always the only forward, through understanding and forgiveness? There is still anger and injustice and poverty. There’s work to be done in South Africa and the rest of the world. But he gives you hope.”

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