LOS ANGELES, December 5, 2013 – This year’s Best Actor Academy Award race just got a lot more interesting. Idris Alba’s performance as Nelson Mandela in the Weinstein Company’s new film “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ is so good, audiences may completely forget that some guys named Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier once portrayed the South African anti-apartheid icon on the silver screen.
UPDATING: Sadly, it was announced this afternoon in the U.S. that Nelson Mandela has passed away at the age of 95 after a long illness. Reports hit the wires not long after this review went online, and the South African leader’s death has transformed this film’s release into an unexpectedly poignant occasion.
Spanning Mandela’s life from his young childhood in rural South Africa to his ascendency of the Presidency of South Africa, “Mandela” zeroes in on key highlights from the late anti-apartheid hero’s amazing life story, including his twenty-year incarceration and his marriage to Winnie Mandela (wonderfully played by Naomie Harris) delivering a home run of a biopic in the process.
The scenes devoted to Mandela’s early career as a smart lawyer helping his black South African clients win justice against all odds reveal where the great man’s passions, moral context and sense of honor came from.
In addition, meeting Mandela’s family and seeing the film’s depiction of the poverty the Mandelas endured after a forced to move to Soweto (not to mention during Nelson’s jailing in the early 1960s) brings 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 of the kind of heavy-handedness we have come to expect in films today.
However, director Justin Chadwick’s film does sugarcoat some history as his depiction of events 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.
On the other hand, the film doesn’t really need to dwell on supporting characters that much as its primary focus is on the reality of Mandela’s South Africa, keeping you there to gain an understanding of how and why Mandela became MANDELA.
The story line, written by Screenwriter William Nicholson and 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 Winnie’s life and later atrocious—such as viciously murdering collaborators—are portrayed as truthfully as possible. Naomie Harris’ performance in this role deserves an Oscar nomination as much as Alba’s Mandela, and she is to be commended for taking on such a daunting role.
“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” not only depicts a historic and human epic. It is also one of the best films of this year. By taking its audience inside key intimate moments of the Mandela’s marriage, the separations and harassment via the South African apartheid government and the unraveling of their lives later on, the film erases our old newsprint vision of Nelson Mandela, presenting him as more vivid and real than ever.
For generations only knowing Mandela through his 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.
From a production standpoint, cinematically and musically, this is a film built from marvelously nuanced character portrayals, which are brought vividly to life against the backdrop of beautiful African scenic tableaux. While, like most films, it should eventually find its way to Netflix and cable TV, it is really one of those films that should be seen and heard in a movie theatre.
Not many movie epics are such a pleasure to experience. This one most emphatically is. Mr. Mandela may no longer walk among us. But his spirit–the unquenchable spirit of freedom–will live on forever.
WTC Rating: **** (4 out of 4 Stars)
MPAA rating: PG-13. In Theatres now.
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