An ambitious child of the Xhosa nation, Nelson Mandela, nicknamed “troublemaker” by his father, immediately sought to make his family proud. By 1942, Nelson (Idris Elba) worked as counsel for his brethren in Johannesburg, South Africa, a country of customary racism, frequently winning cases when prosecutorial complainants stormed out from embarrassment over being questioned by a black man in a courtroom. In the late 1940s, denouncing the treatment of his people, he aids with the organization of the Alexandra Bus Depot boycott and decries the oppressive military presence, the push of white supremacy, and the forced segregation in the townships. These actions garner him great support from the people, but contempt from his wife, Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto).
After his marriage falls apart through prioritizing the quest for African equality over familial contentment, he meets Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), the first black social worker in Johannesburg. The two begin a whirlwind romance (comparable to the epic, montaged emotional ride of “Reds” or “Out of Africa”) and are soon wed. Mandela goes on to protest pass-carrying policies in 1960 in Sharpeville, which ends in dozens of demonstrators being slaughtered by police – and the more drastic retaliation of armed opposition and violence. He’s called a terrorist for the African National Congress and is eventually captured in 1963. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, he’s incarcerated at Robben Island for an unthinkable eighteen years, enduring physical and psychological torture at the hands of his jailers – while Winnie, who continues the fight, is similarly persecuted and detained at regular intervals.
It all sounds like a history lesson. But unlike typical biographical adaptations, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” combines thriller elements like those found in “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” to instill excitement in the telling of a man who lived a most movie-worthy life. Despite the facts of Mandela’s anti-apartheid endeavors and his publicized arrest and eventual release, the film manages to make the various outcomes riveting and impassioned. The inevitability of violence, confinement, and freedom don’t interfere with theatrics. Slow motion, sound effects, and stirring music help, but it’s the dialogue and editing (with actual footage from many of the riots and protests) that most movingly convey gripping interpretations of political insurgency.
The performances are outstanding, headlined by Idris Elba’s powerfully convincing portrayal of the iconic revolutionary and forgiving South African president. As with “J. Edgar,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or “Saving Private Ryan,” the use of makeup effects for aging are masterly, but doesn’t hold a candle to the acting, which handsomely evinces physical and mental maturation. Naomie Harris is equally astounding as the angered, influential, and invariably radical opponent of the white minority rule. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is a triumphant, hopeful, educational project of grand scope and greater reach, nicely besting the dramatization of Mandela’s sensational history in previous works, such as “Mandela and de Klerk” (with Sidney Poitier), Danny Glover’s “Mandela” (1987), and Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” (which had a very limited scope).
- The Massie Twins