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Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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There were a handful of towering figures in social-justice movements of the 20th century -- people who spearheaded a liberation movement in the name of a principle, at great cost to themselves.

Gandhi comes to mind, along with Martin Luther King Jr. But my list would be topped by Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in harsh prison conditions -- and wound up not only changing his country but leading it as South Africa's first black president after the end of apartheid, which he helped bring about.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is Justin Chadwick's film of Mandela's autobiography, from William Nicholson's screenplay. But really, this film belongs to Idris Elba, from start to finish. With his slightly sleepy eyes, ramrod posture and commanding voice (emulating Mandela's slightly throatier version), Elba commands the screen.

Which is good, because, given how much history this film has to cover, it tends to jump around. But Elba is its anchor, physically and emotionally, just as Mandela himself held the movement that was the African National Congress together, even as he moldered in a jail cell on Robben Island.

Though it shows him briefly as a child in the tribal lands of South Africa, the film really kicks into gear in 1948, with Mandela as a young attorney in Johannesburg. Blacks (otherwise referred to in that era of that country as Africans or natives, as opposed to Europeans, the designation of the white minority) are the majority, outnumbering whites by more than nine to one. But at that point, they were still second-class citizens, victims of the European colonization of the African continent.

The film picks up at the point where the white minority doubled down on its racist regime, instituting a nationwide policy of laws designed to uphold the notion of white supremacy. Blacks and people of mixed race were virtually without legal recourse, forced to carry identifying passes, to be produced on command from police or other authorities.

At first skeptical of activism, Mandela is persuaded to join the African National Congress, a liberation group, after a friend of his is arrested for lack of a pass, then beaten to death by police while in custody. Mandela becomes the public face of the ANC, the voice who speaks out and rouses the masses with his insightful, pithy speeches.

This review continues on my website.