The timing couldn’t have been more surreal — it was during the December 5 Royal Film Performance of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom that Nelson Mandela’s death was confirmed.
Two of his daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, were in London and allowed the screening to go on, saying that’s what their father would have wanted. The crowd was told of his death during their standing ovation, after which they observed two minutes of silence.
Some people have said it was horrible that his daughters were at a film evening when they learned of his death - but then again, they were together, and in a room where Mandela was being celebrated by hundreds of people.
At a Mandela screening the next day, the film-making team was adamant that the family wanted the film’s journey to continue. It was an emotional day to watch the film, but it felt fitting to watch his life dramatised on the big screen - and just as valuable a way to honour him as watching the TV tributes on a loop.
I thought director Justin Chadwick struck the right tone that night when asked about how the film will now go down in history. “I just hope a new generation can discover him, and maybe our film in some small way can keep that legacy going.”
In the 12 hours after Mandela’s death, Chadwick recalled Zindzi telling him, “My father would want you to go and work… He knew this film was happening, he was behind it, you celebrated his life. You should carry on with that work, spread his message, that’s what this film is about, that’s why we’re here.”
Chadwick continued: “It’s about showing what he achieved, and what that country achieved.”
Film is perhaps the most powerful medium for bringing history alive. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom should be celebrated for that. It is a special way to honour Mandela, and I think it’s great audiences around the world will want to remember him by going to the cinema.
Before Mandela’s death, the biopic had broken box-office records in South Africa. It is now on very limited release in the US in four cinemas, and goes wide on Christmas Day (via The Weinstein Company). Pathé releases in the UK on January 3.
This film’s release plans should be honoured, and I wouldn’t blame distributors if they brought it forward - it’s now an especially timely film, and it would be smart, not crass, to let audiences see it as soon as they can.
What would be crass is awards-season grandstanding that tries to capitalise on his death. If Idris Elba wasn’t in line to win best actor before, he shouldn’t be now. We’ve seen voters mark the untimely passing of actors or directors with awards attention, but this is a special case.
Nikki Finke, the founder of Deadline, got herself in trouble on Twitter by announcing Mandela’s death, noting he was the subject of a buzzy awards film. In a word: ugh. That’s no way to honour one of the heroes of our time.
Let’s remember the man on his own and appreciate Mandela the film separately. It would be an insult to the great man’s legacy if they were confused.