Monday, December 30, 2013


Movies that take their material from real life can be tricky.  Documentaries are often dismissed by the general public as boring in their relentless sincerity or too one-sided in their coverage.  Feature films that focus on the events of a real person's life ("biopics") can likewise be tricky.  Two recent biopics - Lincoln and 42 - dodge this problem by not trying to tell the whole story; instead, both films focus on a small, incredibly important, slice of the life of their subject.  (I reviewed Lincoln here and the Jackie Robinson film 42 here, by the way.)

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom takes another path.  The film attempts, in less than two and a half hours, to tell most of the life story of an incredibly influential, complex man.  Such a task cannot be completed in that time frame, although Mandela tries mightily.  Make no mistake - this is a good film and has much to recommend it - but it wobbles slightly under its own weight.  Then again, how could it not?  Nelson Mandela is nearly a creature out of myth.  An educated man who bristled under the yoke of a blatantly unfair society, he first sought to change the system peacefully, but eventually turned to violent means.  Arrested and convicted, he was imprisoned under harsh circumstances for 27 years, yet never surrendered his dream of a more just society.  From behind bars, he became a global force to be reckoned with, due in no small part to his commanding presence, sharp intelligence, and uncanny ability to listen and file information away.  Released, he became South Africa's first black president and (with former Archbishop Desmond Tutu) established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the deep, festering wounds left by apartheid.  It's all too easy to make Mandela into some sort of saint who spent his time on Robben Island quietly contemplating the birds in flight.

Director Justin Chadwick tries hard to resist the pull of a simplified myth and this Mandela (played magnificently by Idris Elba) has some warts.  He's a skirt-chaser early in life and his unfaithfulness, as well as his near-constant absences from home, led to the breakup of his first marriage.  He's also a shrewd politician - notice how Mandela listens to everything and often says very little.

Elba is a wonderfully accomplished actor who has brought a certain gravitas to his recent roles, including Heimdall the Guardian in the Thor franchise, but this role is a whole new level and Elba rises to the occasion.  The same can be said for Naomie Harris, who played Eve Moneypenny in the recent Bond flick Skyfall.  That was a fun role, to be sure, but sensitively portraying Winnie Mandela, who embraced violence in the name of social change long after her husband nigh-miraculously renounced it - well, that's a job to be proud of.  The film does a good job of showing just why Winnie Mandela was led to continue advocating violence - it's not just something that happens, but it is a stark reminder that we so often make our own monsters.  She chose necklacing to silence her political opponents; he chose the ballot box.  While South Africa continues to have problems galore to deal with, the country is much better off for Mandela's leadership during that crucial time.  Go see this movie.

(By the way, following Mandela's death in early December, I was shocked (for in many ways, I remain naive) at the vitriol and sheer hatred that poured forth from some of the human family who denounced Mandela as a communist and terrorist, thereby completing ignoring (1) the sheer inhumanity of the apartheid regime, (2) the desperation people can be driven to, and (3) the role politics plays in history.  Chadwick's film is not perfect, but it's well worth seeing.  It's likely to spark some uncomfortable discussions and that's a very good thing, for history does not disappear by being ignored. Instead, it becomes twisted and distorted, thus requiring a good cleaning.  And truth is the best disinfectant.)

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