MRR Review: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on South African President Nelson Mandela's autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Idris Elba (Prometheus) stars as Nelson Mandela, Naomie Harris (Skyfall) stars as Winnie Mandela, with Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directing.

MRR Review: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

Rating: PG-13 (some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content, and brief strong language)
Length: 139 minutes
Release Date: November 29, 2013
Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Genre: Biography/Drama/History

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" tells the story of Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), the acclaimed former President of South Africa who spent twenty-seven years in prison because of his role in trying to overthrow his government's racist apartheid regime. Before the film gets into those details, it shows the audience how Mandela grew up and what may have inspired him to become the leader he is today.

After a short time spent on Mandela's native roots and childhood, the film flashes forward to the mid-1940s. Mandela had earned his law degree and felt that his success as a lawyer would be enough to ease the sting of inequality by allowing him to become an upstanding member of society. He is popular with the ladies, much to the chagrin of his wife Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), who would later divorce him. Shortly thereafter, he meets Winnie (Naomie Harris) and falls hard for her. She is aware of his womanizing past and won't have any of it, so a repentant Mandela marries her and has two children with her while beginning to take a keen interest in the racist politics of his country. He no longer thinks that success will be the great equalizer, because he knows that the system is rigged to always make him fail. He embraces a number of techniques for fighting apartheid, including violence very briefly when he was still trying to figure out how best to fight against the South African government.

Mandela's involvement in anti-apartheid groups made him a huge target for the government he was trying to fight, especially since he was so charming and an excellent speaker. He roused up the masses, which led to his incarceration for nearly thirty years in an offshore prison where many thought he would probably spend the rest of his life. Thankfully, Mandela's story has a much happier ending than that, and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" makes sure to cover every inch of his eventual triumph and his key role in ending apartheid for the good of South Africa.

Some biopics about uplifting individuals like Mandela gloss over some of their more daunting moments or flaws, such as when Mandela cheated on his first wife, leading to their divorce. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" does no such thing; it shows Mandela's past, warts and all. It even goes into detail about Mandela's short run-in with violence as a means to get things done. Director Justin Chadwick seems intent on showing just how complicated a man Mandela is and doesn't flinch at showing the occasional bad side or Mandela's involvement in a few highly controversial events before he became the poster child for the anti-apartheid movement. Since this is an authorized film, that means that Mandela himself had to give the OK for these events to be put in the movie. This is a bold move from a man who is considered to be one of the most revered statesmen the world has ever seen.

If Chadwick wanted to show every aspect of Mandela, he could not have picked a better actor than Elba to do it. The underrated actor has spent quite a bit of his screen career on the sidelines, taking meaty but supporting roles in films such as "Thor" and TV shows such as "The Wire." Recently, he has come into his own as the titular antihero in the British hit "Luther," and now he is showing just how much he is capable of by playing Mandela. He imbues the character with all the passion one would expect from him, and he is quite convincing as Mandela. This is especially true of the scenes toward the end in which Elba wears special aging prosthetics to play Mandela in his twilight years. It's arguably Elba's best performance to date, though with his talent, audience members shouldn't be surprised to see him popping up in more lead roles in the future.

Though this movie could have been bleak, particularly when it covers the twenty-seven years Mandela spent in prison, it never really feels dark at all. The spirit and hope for freedom and the destruction of apartheid is always at the forefront, even during what could have easily been pitch-black scenes, such as when Winnie goes to visit Mandela and her anger and angst almost overtake her. The audience is keenly aware that this is supposed to be an uplifting film about Mandela, and it delivers on that front very well.

Rating: 3 out of 5