Thousands or millions of words have been written about Nelson Mandela this week, with more to come, and the best way to avoid empty fanfare is probably to say: Yes, he was clearly one of the most important political figures of our time, and led a remarkable life. But we can only make guesses about the long-term consequences and historical legacy of his extraordinary career, which is open to many readings and conflicting interpretations. Today we look for a one-sentence message of inspiration and uplift, because that’s the natural impulse when a human life has reached its end. Those who come along later, when the rest of us are dead too, may put the picture together quite differently than we do now.
As Joan Walsh has pointed out, it’s ludicrous that contemporary American right-wingers like Sen. Ted Cruz feel obligated to say nice things about Mandela now that he’s dead. Cruz’s immediate forebears in the loony-tunes, Birchian branch of the conservative movement, including Dick Cheney, the entire Reagan administration and the neocon circle around National Review, supported the South African apartheid regime right to the bitter end and consistently portrayed Mandela as a terrorist, a communist sympathizer and a dangerous anti-American revolutionary.
Furthermore, it’s a diagnosis that’s at least partly accurate, depending on what you think “terrorist” means, and with the proviso that Mandela made strategic alliances with communists but always opposed both their ideology and their domineering style. The irate Tea Partyers posting on Cruz’s Facebook page actually have a point: If Cruz had a shred of integrity, he’d stick to denouncing Mandela or simply shut the hell up.
As for the inert, semi-hagiographic portrait delivered in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” with the great British actor Idris Elba boxed into a thankless role, that’s just as ideological in its own way as the right wing’s long-running cartoon version. While the movie is handsome to look at and offers the requisite inspiring episodes at regular intervals — Elba is especially stirring delivering Mandela’s 1964 courtroom speech, during the trial that could easily have led to his execution — its desire to pack everything in leaves you with the curious sensation that everything important has been left out.
We glimpse Mandela in stages as an idealistic young lawyer, an armed revolutionary, a political prisoner, a husband in an irreparably damaged marriage and a senior statesman who repudiates violence and leads his nation into democracy. But there’s little or no sense of how those shifts occurred, unless perhaps through superior force of personality or the agency of the Almighty. Although the movie is based on Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, it’s been reprocessed by William Nicholson, the screenwriter of “Les Misérables” and “Gladiator,” which may tell you everything you need to know. This is the authorized, Western liberal-consensus version of the story, in which a Great Man decides that violence is bad, while those of us out in middle-class audience-land nod along in contented agreement.