I saw the United States premiere of MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 9, 2013. I have been thinking about the film for two months, having read the autobiography, from which it was adapted nearly twenty years before. LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, directed by Justin Chadwick and screenplay written by William Nicholson, had an enormous task; to follow the lead of an eminently literate, political humanist in a film genre which contradicts the main character’s essence.   Actor Edris Alba plays Mr. Mandela wielding the full scope of self-reflection, commitment and fallibility. 

If a hero has to be perfect, then no one can aspire to the job. If a film must be flawless, all would be unwatchable.  Super Heroes save others and are endowed with powers making them godlike. The ability for individuals to identify with Mandiba’s fallible human character in the film will likely be of more value, in inspiring others to leadership, than simply heaping accolades in memorial to his considerable uniqueness. His fallibility does not detract from his human hero status, nor did it prevent him from freeing himself and in so doing enabling others to do so as well. This is the true mark of the human hero story. They are usually recruited to struggles reluctantly; forced to overcome apparent insurmountable obstacles with a group of confidants (or at very least one.) Think Don Quixote.

There are at least two bioethical conflicts illustrated by this film; One being a beneficence concern and the other a justice concern. The need to depict a significant leader without portraying him as a god is a beneficence issue. Unfortunately it is anathema for a film about a hero. It may be difficult for audiences to get their heads around.  This even though, our science and humanities knowledge tells us when men are deemed greater than human, the outcome for human development is poor. Mr. Mandela walked that line cautiously and so tried the film.

The issue of equitable distribution of benefits and burdens, or justice, is raised in key relationships between Mandiba and his family; in side of prison; ultimately those who were exiled and those who stayed on the home front. It is a fundamental issue in those who commit themselves to humanitarian struggle that they are public beyond the apparent immediate needs of their families, though in service of both.  Sorting out whether you are to provide for the care of your family or be the agent of their care is an issue in many careers sharing borders with struggle.

It is an important part of film literacy for viewers and teachers of bioethics to understand the role of genre. Audiences defined genre. The ways in which they respond to how films "present" stories, creates the marketed. The strength of the allegiance of the filmmakers to genre defines the works monetary potential and so production potential. Projected monetary success determines the probability of a film seeing the light of projection. The often noted hypocrisy of the major film industry products is in fact determined by what viewers support and do not support. The standard changes only when viewers demand it.

The 'Biopic' or biography-picture genre focuses on the ‘star.’  The star of a film is the character who undergoes the most change. By this standard one could argue actor Naomie Harris’ Winnie Mandela portrayal would make her the star of this film. Mandiba is shown confident, pensive and rational throughout the first two-thirds of the film. It is through her suffering that he begins to struggle with the details of the ethical conflicts associated with the effects of the demands of choosing a life of struggle, on family.  However, she is more than family, she is a comrade in arms so shares the same conflict. 

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM works against its genre, because the nation of South Africa is the true primary character, not Mr. Mandela.  The films difficulty deepens because the filmmaker and screenwriter had to make a star movie out of the story of a man whose historical record shows he did not cast himself as a star, but as a drafted leader in a cadre of equally strong heroes.
I suspect there was enormous hand wringing over the film’s diminished depiction of the cadre to which Mr. Mandela historically belonged; giving only a passing nod to the extraordinary likes of Oliver Tambo, Brahm Fischer and Walter Sisulu. The movement for one person one vote in South Africa was not dependent on Mr. Mandela alone. Would that it and struggles to come be so simple. The longing of the average person for simplicity sends patrons to the theater. It is our job to use film as a device helping people understand more deeply and finding resonance of the work within themselves. This has been the purpose of all storytelling throughout human history. When we see these issues in clinics with overwhelmed parents, in colleagues and so on, suggest films that may help.

It is hard to make a film whose main character seeks to defy the adoration of the chosen genre, but I am glad Chadwick struggled to do so with MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. 

Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (35mm) directed by Justin Chadwick. UK. The Weinstein Company. 2013.

For further information read:
Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Little Brown & Co. 1994.
A brief history of the African national Congress.  http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=206     accessed December 12, 2013

Zoe Elton. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom /http://www.mvff.com/ ; accessed December 13, 2013

Museum of the African Diaspora was the sponsor of the MVFF screen of MANDELA LONG WALK TO FREEDOM see: http://www.moadsf.org/