“ I think he would be pleased.”
The words of Ahmed Kathrada, one of Nelson Mandela’s closest confidants, giving what he thinks would be Mandela’s assessment of the new film based on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
“This will be the first fairly complete resume of his life from childhood onward,” Kathrada said. He is a legendary anti-apartheid activist himself, and former political prisoner with Mandela on the notorious Robben Island.
Kathrada, affectionately known here as Kathy, was speaking at the first screening of the “official” trailer for the new movie at the Mandela Centre of Memory, the almost-sacred repository for just about everything about Mandela’s life. The same trailer begins appearing in theaters in the coming days. The film opens in the U.S. in November.
This dramatic look at Mandela’s life is perhaps even more poignant now, with Mandela still in critical condition at home. It’s now been more than 100 days since he became seriously ill early in June.
Kathrada, who rarely speaks about Mandela’s condition publicly, revealed that he visited Mandela in the hospital about a month ago.
“It was overwhelming,“ Kathrada said, his voice breaking, his eyes tearing. “I’ve known the man for 67 years since I was a school boy…and all my life I’ve known him as a strong man, “ he said. “It was quite traumatic to see him a shadow of his former self,” Kathrada said in a hushed tone, heavy with emotion.
Long Walk to Freedom is a powerful epic that begins with Mandela as an 8-year-old growing up in the rural hinterland. The story moves chronologically to Mandela as a teenager, then as a 35-year-old firebrand activist and attorney. It culminates with Mandela as the newly elected president of South Africa.
“It’s an opportunity to engage the legacy,” said Luvuyo Mandela, 29, one of Mandela’s great-grand children, also there for the screening. “What is it that you think [Mandela] would want people to take from the film,” I asked. “That he was a human being, he came from humble beginnings and he rose to what people may call his calling in life,” the young Mandela, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, said, adding, “if you feel there’s something in your community in your sphere of influence that your can positively affect, do so.”
Long Walk to Freedom stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. It explores very personal matters like the romantic relationship between Mandela and his second wife. There are vivid scenes, shot with careful attention to historical details, about events like Mandela’s arrest, when he hides a gun in his car’s seat and chooses not to resist the police. The filmmakers made a replica of the notorious Robben Island prison where Mandela spent so many of his 27 years behind bars.
While there have been several films about aspects of Mandela’s life, like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom is truly unique because Mandela commissioned it himself. He personally selected South African filmmaker Anant Singh to produce it. A project that Singh says started 25 years ago, when he first sent a letter to Mandela, while he was still in prison, raising the possibility of making a movie about his iconic life.
“It has been a huge responsibility,” says Singh of the 35-million-dollar production. Not huge by Hollywood blockbuster standards, but the biggest budget film ever done in South Africa by South Africans. “ I think audiences around the world are ready for this epic biopic,” Singh said. He’s just back from the Toronto film festival, where the entire movie was shown. He says the audience gave a standing ovation that lasted through seven minutes of closing credits. The film, he said, “is touching people’s hearts.”
And Singh also has been able to gauge the reaction of the person with every right to be his harshest critic, Nelson Mandela himself. “Knowing his modesty I think he would say this is too grand or something to that affect.”
About a year ago, Singh was able to share a few scenes from the production with Mandela, before he became so ill.
“He was quite amused by it, “ Singh said of Mandela’s reaction to seeing himself portrayed in a Hollywood movie. “That was very satisfying.”