Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom dramatizes a story that, in many ways, needs no dramatization. It charts the remarkable life and struggle of Nelson Mandela (played in the film by Idris Elba), who was imprisoned for nearly three decades for protesting the apartheid policies of the South African government before ultimately ascending, following his release, to become the country’s first black president. Mandela’s relationship with his second wife, Winnie, portrayed in the movie by Naomie Harris, is a pivotal aspect of the film, as it shows how the fight for racial equality defined two passionate freedom fighters, both as a power couple who remained committed to each other over decades of separation, and as individuals who responded very differently to the brutality that they each endured at the hands of the South African authorities. During his imprisonment, Nelson came to be a dignified and defiant international icon of peaceful resistance. Winnie, though, arose as a much more complicated figure. She became the public face of the movement, enduring years of house arrest and, at one point, 18 months of solitary confinement. But by the late ’80s, her image had become tarnished by disturbing allegations of violent retribution and her involvement in a number of human-rights violations, and she was later convicted, in 2003, on charges of fraud and theft. The Mandelas separated shortly before Nelson became president in 1994, and divorced two years later. Though, Long Walk to Freedom is undeniably Nelson’s story, the film provides an illuminating window into the complex dynamics of their relationship, and Harris’s deft, nuanced performance captures Winnie not just as a wife, but as woman and as an activist, and offers some insight as to why she might have become a more hardened radical.
Harris, who made her film debut in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and most recently appeared as Miss Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Skyfall, was born in London, where she was raised by her Jamaican mother, who was a writer on the British soap EastEnders. Harris went on to attend Cambridge, where she studied political science, but upon leaving, decided to pursue her interest in acting, training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Interestingly, Long Walk to Freedom is both the second film and the second biopic on the African continent that she has made with Chadwick: she played the iron-willed teacher Jane Obinchu in Chadwick’s 2010 film The First Grader, which told the real-life story of Kimani Maruge, who enrolled in school at the age of 84, when Kenya announced universal, free elementary-school education.
Actor Jeffrey Wright, who has played his share of multifaceted figures—Basquiat, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muddy Waters, Colin Powell—recently caught up with the 37-year-old Harris in London.
JEFFREY WRIGHT: I have been fully immersed in Naomie Harris the past couple days.
NAOMIE HARRIS: Oh, no …
WRIGHT: Of you engaging in these delicately crafted, volatile, and kind of piercing characters that you’ve played in Mandela, of course, and The First Grader. Having seen Skyfall—another recent film of yours—I wanted to focus on that triangle, because I think there are some interesting parallels and tensions between those three performances and movies. But I have only one reasonably interesting question for you first, since I lack imagination: What would Moneypenny think of Winnie Mandela and Teacher Jane?
HARRIS: Wow. I’ve never been asked that question before …
WRIGHT: Well, I’ll tell you the reason I ask it. It is because in both Mandela and The First Grader, there’s this ever-present legacy of British colonialism. The stories and the characters are in reaction to the encroachment of the British Empire on Southern and Eastern Africa. In The First Grader, Maruge’s journey is one that has been fueled by his opposition to British imperialism, and yet Moneypenny, on the other hand, is a woman who—
HARRIS: Is part of the British establishment.
WRIGHT: Is very much folded into the British establishment and is living a life that, in many ways, is informed by British imperialism, but from the other side. So I’m just curious about what she’d thinks about Winnie Mandela and Teacher Jane.
HARRIS: I think Moneypenny is part of the British establishment, but one of the things I thought when I had the pleasure of finding out who she is, trying to create her, was that she’s a radical as well. I imagined her as someone who has often been told off because her skirts are not quite long enough and her attire isn’t quite establishment-friendly enough, so she would be all about the celebration of someone like Teacher Jane. But, you know, Winnie is a very complex woman. She’s very polarizing in terms of people’s opinion about her, so what Moneypenny thinks about her is going to be a lot more complicated. I think, without a doubt, Moneypenny would be totally in admiration of Teacher Jane’s work with Maruge and wanting someone who’s older to have the right to free education along with the schoolchildren.
WRIGHT: Well, I’m not sure if Jane’s story is less complicated simply because of Maruge’s history, which is so specifically in violent opposition to British colonialism, and if we were to crystallize it into one element, his reason for his wanting to learn to read is so that he may be celebrated finally for his Mandela-like activism. Those are the things that resonated for me most about that story. The story of the right to education is an extraordinarily powerful and meaningful one, particularly in contemporary Africa, but the film wouldn’t let us get away from how events in history had shaped the restriction of rights to education for someone like Maruge. I thought that was so deeply important, particularly for contemporary audiences to take in.
HARRIS: I think it’s almost the other way around in the sense that it starts off with wanting to tell the untold story about British colonialism, which in relationship to Kenya, isn’t widely known, and wanting to portray its legacy, and then finding a beautiful story like Maruge’s story, because you always want to humanize the history lesson. You don’t want to just preach to people; you want to get them emotionally involved, and I think you do that with a wonderful human story about one person’s struggle. You go from that macro level to the micro of Maruge’s story.
WRIGHT: How did your being a Brit of Jamaican-Trinidadian background who studied political science influence your desire to take on Winnie Mandela’s story? What does she mean to Naomie Harris as opposed to Moneypenny?
HARRIS: I’m always interested in telling stories that have a message because I really do believe that film is so powerful. I am always interested in affecting people in some way, making them think about particular areas of history that they have never thought about or that they may have thought about in one way and then changing their view. That has to do with my studying social and political sciences because I think it made me even more aware of how influences like the media have such a huge impact on an audience. When I got offered the role of Winnie, I thought, Oh, yeah, that’s Nelson Mandela’s wife. I didn’t know anything about her political activism. I didn’t know anything about the fact that she is the woman who really kept Nelson Mandela’s name alive throughout the world while he was in prison. I didn’t know that she suffered immense brutality at the hands of the South African Police establishment. I didn’t know that she was separated from her children while she was put in solitary confinement for 18 months. I didn’t know all these things. Also, I wanted to tell Mandela’s story. Mandela is this extraordinary individual who can inspire the world. Instead of wanting revenge after being brutalized, he showed the world how to forgive. As for how me being Jamaican-Trinidadian influenced my desire to play Winnie … I can’t really speak to the Trinidadian side of things because I don’t know my father; I’ve never known my father, so I am lacking that cultural influence. But I do know about being Jamaican, because that’s what my mum is, and I was raised within the Jamaican culture in Britain. I was surrounded by these incredibly powerful women growing up—independent, opinionated, strong-willed women, like my mum and my aunt. But what always shocks me is that I don’t really see those women being represented in film. I see a woman who is a kind of adjunct to a male story and doesn’t really influence how the story goes. The men kind of go off and do the brave things and the women kind of wait at home, cowering while the dragons are slain. And from my experience growing up in a Jamaican culture, that’s not at all how it was. The women would be going out to slay the dragons alongside the men, if the story were told from their perspective. That’s one of the things I really loved about the opportunity to play Winnie, because here is a woman who is as fierce, as strong, as intelligent, as resourceful, as resilient as the women that I grew up with. Also, powerful women are the most interesting to play. Winnie is one of the most complex characters I’ve ever played—she is like seven women rolled into one, and that is just a gift of a part for any actor.
WRIGHT: The movie, for me anyway, was almost primarily about the politics of their marriage and the politics of their separation, and the ways in which they were partners in this movement was reflective of something much larger. I thought that the most poignant words in the entire film are when Mandela says, “What they did to my wife is their only victory over me.” The thing that I came away with after seeing Winnie’s story as you portrayed it is that the human response to that type of treatment is revenge, is anger. And so Mandela—and his response—is something that most of us can’t understand.
HARRIS: But that’s why it’s so extraordinary, isn’t it? Because it elevates your sense of humanity. It’s more instinctive to want revenge, but we are also capable of immense amounts of forgiveness and love and a compassion that extends even to those who have brutalized us. But you’re right—I feel as though Winnie’s response is the one that I identify with and understand more than Mandela’s. I’d like to believe that I would be able to give in the same way Mandela did, but in reality, I don’t know whether that is true. It is much more likely that I would be left with an immense sense of injustice and immense desire for revenge in the same way that Winnie is.
WRIGHT: The relationship that you and Idris [Elba] were able to create onscreen was wonderfully complex and authentic in a way that kind of took over the storytelling. What was the experience like of telling the story together with Idris?
HARRIS: Idris and I are actually very dissimilar but also have this weird kind of connection as well. We’re both born on September 6 and we’re both only children. He’s kind of like my brother, Max …
WRIGHT: Wait, didn’t you just say that you were an only child?
HARRIS: Yes, sorry. I guess that’s a little confusing. [laughs] I was an only child until I was 20, so I was raised an only child. When I was 20, my brother came along and then my sister came along shortly thereafter. Idris and I did have this great connection, though, from the very beginning. Neither of us went through an audition process to get these roles, so the first time we met, we were in South Africa in a rehearsal room. I remember afterwards, Idris turned to me and said, “This is just terrifying, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yeah, it really is.” It was so human and vulnerable that he opened up to me in that way, and it just meant throughout the film we could be incredibly open. I felt as though we were almost holding each other’s hands through it, because it was tough, particularly filming it in South Africa. People have very strong opinions about how their national icons should be played, and they weren’t particularly thrilled, especially in the beginning, about the fact that they were being played by two people from London.
WRIGHT: What does that mean to be perceived as a Londoner when you are in certain parts of South Africa?
HARRIS: I mean, that was the only issue: just the fact that we were playing their national icons and they understandably have a sense of ownership about them. The Mandelas, to them, are like intimate members of their family, so people’s reaction was, “Why aren’t they being played by South Africans?” I think that Justin [Chadwick] answered that beautifully when he said it was not about whether the actor is South African or American, or what have you; it was about finding the best possible people to play these roles, and that’s why we were chosen.
WRIGHT: Well, I think people inside and outside of South Africa will be highly approving of what you brought to Winnie’s story. Did you have a chance to spend any time with her?
HARRIS: Yeah, I did. I had dinner with her. She’s also seen the film and is very, very pleased, which, obviously, means a great deal to me. When I met her, though, I said, “How do you want to be played?” because I thought, if someone were playing me, I’d have all sorts of ideas about how I’d want to be portrayed. But she said, “Look, you’ve done your research. You are the right person for this role, so you just have to trust that. All I want from you is to be truthful—that you decide how to portray me, because you’ve done your research.” And that was incredibly liberating, especially on the set when there were people who were very opinionated about how they want the Mandelas to be perceived.
WRIGHT: There was a question that came to me—I guess because it’s so specific to Winnie’s relationship with Mandela and his relationship with his first wife, particularly early on. It’s about the sexualizing of Mandela that we see in the film. I was really kind of jarred by that. How did it inform your understanding of his relationship with Winnie?
HARRIS: Well, I think it’s important to show that, because people want to make him into a saint, but Mandela always says, “No, I am a man.” It’s so important to actually show Mandela as this sexualized, flawed human being in the beginning, because that makes what he went on to achieve even more extraordinary. It also means that if he is a man like every other man, then we’re all capable of extraordinary acts, too. If you make him into this sanctified saint from the very beginning of the film, then it means that, “Oh, he was born a saint, he’s different from us,” and we can’t be truly inspired by what he went on to achieve. The sexualization of Mandela is also really important and interesting in terms of his relationship with Winnie and also his first wife, because we see with his first wife that they lacked a kind of chemistry. They don’t have the chemistry to be able to make that relationship work, and because of that, they don’t grow. You see a stunting of Mandela’s development. He wants to become this political activist and he is kind of held back by Evelyn and her views, which are so different from his own. And then you see this kind of magnetism and spark and dynamism when Winnie and Mandela meet. That energy that they have between them, which is partly a sexual energy, that leads to them both blossoming in this extraordinary way.
WRIGHT: It’s interesting because I realized that I had never before in my consideration of Nelson Mandela thought to myself, How does he get down in bed?
HARRIS: That’s not a question you’d really ask yourself, is it?
WRIGHT: Well, now that you’ve done these two films set in Africa, what is your general feeling, interest, sense of responsibility as a member of the African diaspora towards African narrative, African story, and Africa in general?
HARRIS: I think it’s an untapped source of incredible material. As an artist, I am interested in telling stories that haven’t been told before, stories that are going to affect people, and also stories that shine light on areas of history that haven’t had light shined on them before. Africa is this extraordinary place as well. When you film in Africa, it’s almost like a character in and of itself because it is so beautiful and has this special magic that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There is something so incredibly beautiful about the light …
WRIGHT: This journey that we find Nelson and Winnie taking is a political journey—and ultimately it is a successful one, culminating in a political victory with voting rights expanded in South Africa and the election the first African president of South Africa. But the apartheid system was crafted to create and control a cheap labor force that could be directed towards the exploitation of the mineral resources of the country for the benefit of a European minority. In digging into this story, do you get the sense that, although their political victories have been won, perhaps the economic victories are even more challenging and have not yet been realized?
HARRIS: Well, one of the saddest aspects for me about filming in South Africa was that, yes, we have seen the apartheid regime dismantled, but the real inequalities are still very much in place—and those are economic inequalities. You see that the vast majority of black South Africans are unable to afford a high quality of education. Education opens the door to everything in terms of having a career and an impact on society and not being a slave to your job, really. And those kinds of things haven’t really changed in the way that one would hope. Change is slow. But we have to do what we can to try and help, which is one of the reasons why I was so passionate about making The First Grader. As I said, I think education is the key. If you educate children, then they are capable of so much—you empower them, you give them choices, and you enable them to create the lives that they dream for themselves. Without education, you really can’t dream as a child.
JEFFREY WRIGHT IS A THEATER, FILM, AND TELEVISION ACTORWHO HAS MOST RECENTLY APPEARED IN HBO’S BOARDWALK EMPIRE.