In one of the most timely biopics ever released, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” mines a question explored by other civil rights-themed films earlier this year: What is the best way to fight injustice?
Where films like “42” and “The Butler” used professional sports and the White House as a lens on the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, “Mandela” highlights one of the movement’s leaders outside of the U.S. — former South African President Nelson Mandela. And with Mandela’s death earlier this month, the story of his decades-long fight against Apartheid in his home country couldn’t be better timed.
For those whose knowledge of Mandela doesn’t extend beyond a simple memory of a long prison sentence and an eventual victory over state-sponsored segregation in South Africa, “Mandela” provides a history lesson that is both inspiring and honest. Audiences may come away from the film with a deeper respect of an international hero, but they will also be well aware of his shortcomings. Rather than deify or gloss over Mandela’s less glamorous points — such as his marital infidelities — “Mandela” tells a matter-of-fact story that portrays a much more flawed and relatable man.
It is actually in the confrontation of these flaws that Mandela grows into the more celebrated image most people remember from late in his life. Early on, unlike other civil rights heroes like Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela was not above the use of violence or other civil disobedience, declaring an open disregard for a government that disregarded him and his people. It is these early efforts — which take place through the 1950s and early ’60s — that eventually led to Mandela’s prison sentence in an island prison off the coast of South Africa.
The narrative itself is simple and chronological, touching briefly on Mandela’s childhood in rural South Africa and moving quickly through his early adulthood as a defense lawyer. Mandela gets increasingly involved in civil rights around the time South Africa transitions from an environment of informal racism to the state-sponsored Apartheid policy, and his prison sentence soon follows.
Idris Elba’s performance of Mandela is striking, if only for his effort to master the former president’s distinct vocal style. But Naomie Harris is almost more compelling in her portrayal as Winnie, Mandela’s long-suffering wife whose own protest efforts lead to deep philosophical conflict and eventually divorce from her husband.
As impressive a story as “Mandela” tells, and even though it already clocks in at 140 minutes, there is a feeling that director Justin Chadwick could have done a little more to connect the dots, showing us more of what motivated Mandela and his people and what actually happened to turn the tide against South Africa’s Apartheid policy. At times, the story feels a little rushed and motivations a little too assumed. Not every civil rights epic deserves a three-hour-plus running time, but one this important might.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is rated PG-13 for some brutal violence, scattered profanity and some sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.