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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

From convicted terrorist to his country's father

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

The totemization of former South African president Nelson Mandela had, of course, begun long before his recent demise released an international torrent of emotion and tributes. The nearly concurrent release of Justin Chadwick’s movie biography has become part of this celebration. Some industry figures have speculated that producer and studio head Harvey Weinstein agreed to distribute the film last February in a sort of bet on Mandela’s mortality, a suggestion that’s been vehemently denied.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom certainly doesn’t emphasize the blemishes and mistakes of its subject (portrayed by Idris Elba), but it is a surprisingly realistic and clear-eyed introduction to his life, times, and political career. It’s really only a summary, excluding a substantial amount of history and ideas, but what it includes is usually expertly handled. Since Mandela is intended as a popular work of cinema, this is an important, even crucial accomplishment. The exalted reputation of the man might have got in the way of a filmmaker. Movie biography is a genre burdened with difficulties, as evidenced by the low quality of most efforts. A substantially factual movie can often be tedious. To attract audiences, these movies usually sentimentalize their subjects, or drastically simplify and romanticize them.

This week British actor Peter O’Toole passed away and journalists recalled his indisputable triumph as T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. As epically engrossing and technically outstanding as that film is, it will only confuse or mislead anyone attempting to grasp Lawrence’s importance in assembling and leading the Arab Legion during the First World War. The historical record is more complex and nastier than the film’s version. The creators of Mandela have largely escaped this dilemma. Their movie is mostly consonant with the facts, and it’s also emotionally involving much of the time.

Chadwick and writer William Nicholson start their narrative with dialogue-free, dream-like scenes of Mandela’s boyhood and youth as the son of a tribal chief, playing with other boys and undergoing initiation rites. These scenes are bathed in softly luminous color. The movie then hurries forward to the young man’s career as a lawyer for oppressed black South Africans, his recruitment by the African National Congress, and his eventual recourse to armed resistance. It quickly covers his two marriages, the second to the educated and lovely Willie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who is left in dire straits when her husband is arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Even when the movie slows during its depiction of Mandela’s years in prison, it manages to sustain interest and tension. Chadwick has shepherded his narrative briskly, but not at the expense of drama and human insights. There are telling details from the historical record. In one such scene, as a still imprisoned Mandela prepares to meet South African President F. W. de Klerk to discuss ending apartheid, the country’s feared internal security head Niel Barnard notices the prisoner’s shoelace is untied and kneels to tie it. This little incident expresses a lot about changing power relations.

That the Mandela who emerges in this movie is so believable is due in no small measure to Elba’s supple, dynamic and closely observed performance. He’s not the spitting image of Mandela, but by the movie’s end, he has impressed himself on us as the personification of a legend. It’s a superb achievement.

The movie is almost entirely about Mandela, and other very important characters are pushed to the background, including Winnie, but Harris makes the most of her opportunities. (Among the matters Mandela only barely addresses is her eventually brutal tactics against other blacks and her self-enrichment during and after her husband’s imprisonment.)

Since this one’s likely to long remain the definitive movie portrait of Nelson Mandela, it’s fortunate that it is as measured, involving, and accurate as it is.

Mandela: A Long March to Freedom opens at local theaters on Christmas Day.

Watch the trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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