This year’s Best Actor Academy Award race just got a lot more interesting. Idris Alba’s performance as Nelson Mandela is so good that audience may forget that some guys named Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier also played the South African anti-apartheid icon.
Spanning Mandela’s life from his young childhood in rural South Africa to his ascendency of the Presidency of South Africa, “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” picks the key highlights from Mandela’s youth, his twenty-year incarceration and his marriage to Winnie Mandela (wonderfully played by Naomie Harris) and delivers a home run. The scenes of Mandela’s early career as a smart lawyer helping his black South African clients win justice against the odds reveal where the great man’s passions, moral context and sense of honor came from. Also, meeting Nelson’s family and seeing the level of poverty that the Mandelas lived in when forced to move to Soweto (and then, during Nelson’s jailing in the early 1960s) bring home just how debilitating and evil apartheid was for black South Africans. By the time Nelson Mandela is sent to Robben Island to serve his life sentence, this excellent film envelopes the audience with the importance of what is happening on-screen without any heavy-handedness.
Director Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” does sugarcoat some history as the film glorifies the African National Congress (ANC) without mentioning any of its communist ties. The film also elevates a number of Mandela’s fellow ANC leaders to important roles, but doesn’t provide much background or information on them. Granted it doesn’t really need to as the film takes you to Mandela’s South Africa and keeps you there to see how and why Mandela became MANDELA.
The story written by Screenwriter William Nicholson (based on Mandela’s own autobiography) also takes us inside the desperate negotiations to end apartheid without widespread race-on-race bloodshed. It is in this latter portion of the film that we see the contrasts between Nelson and Winnie Mandela as apartheid’s last days arrive. We also witness Nelson’s coyness and wit as he negotiates with the South African government for a way out of their racial mess. No worries for those unfamiliar with these events as the mix of archival footage fills in everyone on what happened and when. All parties are treated fairly as possible in “Mandela.” Even the life and later atrocious acts of Winnie (such as viciously murdering collaborators) are portrayed as truthfully as possible. Naomie Harris’ performance is deserving of an Oscar nomination herself and she is to be commended for taking on such a daunting role.
“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” is a historic and human epic that is also one of the best films of this year. By taking its audience inside the key intimate moments of the Mandela’s marriage, their harassment and separations via the South African apartheid government and the unraveling of their lives later on… the film makes Nelson Mandela more vivid and real. For generations only knowing Mandela’s smiling, grandfatherly image the film adds much to the canon of his life and the incredible events he shaped in helping to free South Africa from apartheid. Cinematically and musically, this is a beautiful tablaued film that should be seen (and heard) in a movie theatre. Not many epics are such a pleasure to watch and experience. This one is.
4 out of 4 Stars. Rating: PG-13. Distributed by The Weinstein Company and in theatres now.