Christian Reviewers Call 'Mandela' a Strong Film, but Fails to Capture His Faith

Film producer Anant Singh poses for photographs during the launch of the movie trailer of 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, September 17 2013.
Film producer Anant Singh poses for photographs during the launch of the movie trailer of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, September 17 2013. | (Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

The new film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" teaches important lessons, but it fails to capture the main character's deeper motivations and show how the Christian faith condemns the evils of apartheid, Christian reviewers said. Nelson Mandela, the South African civil rights leader, passed away Thursday at the age of 95.

"While the film is a remarkable example of forgiveness and reconciliation, it doesn't reveal the source of Mandela's ability to forgive," Craig Detweiler, associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University, told The Christian Post in an interview on Wednesday. Detweiler argued that "the film could have gotten into spirituality and faith," but didn't.

John Schmidt, associate professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University, echoed the same reservation. "I didn't feel that I got the spirit of the man, the roots of his passion for freedom and equality, which is after God's heart," Schmidt said.

The film portrays the lifelong story of Nelson Mandela, leader of the anti-apartheid civil rights movement and the first black president of South Africa. Although Mandela is an open Methodist, the Christian reviewers agreed that the film did not emphasize Mandela's faith.

Schmidt argued that "Mandela might have been strengthened a little bit by focus and not telling the whole man's life." He compared the film to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," in which Spielberg chose a very short stretch of the sixteenth president's life, and this limit allowed the film "to breathe a little bit more," Schmidt explained.

Detweiler compared the long narrative in "Mandela" to the story of other great heroes fighting injustice. He claimed that the film drew "parallels to the trajectories of Jesus, of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, who all dealt with oppressive regimes."

"This film is a powerhouse film, fueled by some amazing performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris," Detweiler proclaimed, heaping praise on its ability to move the audience. He also praised the film's central point – "The unmistakable message of the movie is that forgiveness is the only way forward for humanity, even in the face of horrendous abuse."

Despite the central theme of forgiveness, both Detweiler and Schmidt agreed that the film presents challenges to a Christian audience. Comparing it with the recent film "12 Years a Slave," Detweiler said "the stories of Mandela and the abolition movement both demonstrate the danger of using the Bible to justify horrific political positions, and how much true religion can be damaged by bad religion."

Apartheid's misuse of scripture to promote its racist rule, like the arguments from scripture to support slavery in "12 Years a Slave," pricks the Christian conscience and remind the Church of its faults, the Biola professor argued.

"I love films that deal with exposing our sin on many levels," Schmidt explained. He argued that these films are necessary and good lessons for healing. "There's some vein of people who think we don't need any more holocaust movies, but I say bring it on," he declared, arguing that it's important to remind future generations of the evils of the past and to reflect on our own sins.

"I like to explore my own racism when I watch a film – film is a great mirror to the heart," Schmidt admitted. Films that help Christians acknowledge their own sin may enable the faithful to trust God more and to reject the evils we were born with.

Schmidt praised the film for its "in-your-face storytelling, uncompromising not only in unfolding its accolades about Mandela himself, but also his flaws, such as his hot temper and adultery while married to his first wife." While many Christians will find it difficult to watch, it "powerfully and tragically reflects the sins of racial, class, and social injustices, issues with which a righteous God is very much concerned."

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