12/06/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Honoring Nelson Mandela Through Film

Nelson Mandela, who rallied his country to end apartheid, became the country's first black president, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, died yesterday. The man lived nearly a century, yet his death came as a shock.

Though none of us could ever truly imagine the trials he faced or the suffering he experienced, a number of filmmakers have used the power of cinema to present a window -- however narrow and skewed it might be -- into that struggle, or one like it. (I'm especially hopeful about the upcoming biopic's effectiveness in sharing Mandela's powerful story in a way no other medium could.)

In memory of Mr. Mandela, I'd like to recommend six great movies that relate to his life in a number of ways.

Amongst the six below are three films that address race, poverty, and humanity in South Africa. Each approaches the subject at a different angle -- District 9 addresses apartheid through science-fiction allegory, Tsotsi (2005 Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film) follows a young Johannesburg gang member through the city's lingering slums as he almost literally stumbles onto redemption, and Yesterday is interested in the effects of AIDS on the country's most vulnerable classes, and how they persevere in spite of the cruel lot they've been handed.

I've also included three pivotal movies about important leaders who, like Mandela, struggled against oppression over the course of their own lives.

These are all great movies in and of themselves, but today it feels especially right to think about the issues they raise: social inequality, the importance of integrity, and how one man forever changed the world.

It's also an appropriate time to watch great films.

Yesterday (2004) - Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) may be seriously ill, yet she still has to walk two hours each way to see a doctor at a clinic. When she discovers she is HIV positive, she travels to Johannesburg to tell her husband (Kenneth Khambula) who works in a mine there. He refuses to accept responsibility and beats her. Back in her tiny village she continues to care for her young daughter Beauty (Lihle Myelase), while befriending the new schoolteacher (Harriet Lenabe). Hiding her sickness from the narrow-minded villagers, she vows to see Beauty start school before she lets the disease takes its inevitable course. This Oscar nominated drama achieves a state of grace through its breathtaking cinematography, simple storytelling, and the noble, understated performance of Khumalo, who infuses Yesterday's emotional journey with palpable fear and yearning. South Africa looks stunning, but Roodt doesn't use the country's wild beauty to sugarcoat Yesterday's primitive life of toil, uncertainty and hardship. This powerful film about AIDS in Africa touches on all key issues (the stigma, ignorance, and lack of health care) without succumbing to maudlin sentiment or political heavy-handedness. This is the first Zulu language film ever to be released internationally, and it fully merits international recognition and praise. Seize "Yesterday"!

Tsotsi (2005) - Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) a young hood with his own small gang in the slums of Johannesburg, may look like a boy, but is brutal when crossed. After committing a violent car-jacking, Tsotsi discovers an unexpected package in the back-seat, one which inspires an equally unlikely attempt to forge some sort of hopeful legacy in a grim, unforgiving world. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, Gavin Hood's raw, searing film brings off a tricky premise with just the right balance of sensitivity and force, as the discovery of a baby rekindles in a supposedly hardened thug long-suppressed feelings of humanity and an instinctive desire for redemption. Chweneyagae's complex, astonishing performance provides the film's focal point, and this, combined with Hood's assured pacing and direction, helped net "Tsotsi" a richly deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A real stunner.

District 9 (2009) - Extra-terrestrials come to earth and land in Johannesburg. The city's human residents swiftly marginalize these creatures, relegating them to slums. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharito Copley), a state security agent, is tasked with moving all the aliens from their current dwellings in District 9 to an even less hospitable location. Wikus eventually gets exposed to a powerful alien substance which begins transforming him into... one of them. Obviously, his bosses want to make a guinea pig out of him, and so hunter becomes hunted. Will Wikus become fully human again, and will the aliens finally escape this planet? Even with state-of-the-art effects creating a most convincing race of aliens, Blomkamp's disarming feature succeeds mainly on the fundamentals of story and script. (The film, which netted four Oscar nods, including Best picture for producer Peter Jackson, cost only $30 million). Brisk pacing and rousing action scenes are complemented by a welcome tongue-in-cheek tone, and a fun performance by actor Copley, who's far from the usual action hero type. All these ingredients give this "District" a quirky, original quality sorely missing in most Hollywood fare of this type.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) - Charting the early life experiences of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) in Springfield, Illinois, this fictionalized biopic follows the future president from his first political speech in 1832 and the tragic death of girlfriend Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) to his first trial case as a lawyer. Throughout, we glimpse moments of anguish and triumph in the making of a moral leader, as well as his courtship of society belle Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). The film culminates with Lincoln summoning uncommon ingenuity in defending two young men accused of murder. Unspooling with the simplicity of a frontier parable, "Lincoln" is an unqualified triumph. The film teamed Fonda with director Ford for the first time, resulting in an extraordinary collaboration. Fonda, who originally declined the role because of his awed reverence for Lincoln's legacy, embodies Abe with plainspoken assurance and gutsy idealism. Weaver, as the future Mrs. Lincoln, and Alice Brady, as the mother of two sons presumed guilty of murder, round out a luminous studio cast. Lamar Trotti's screenplay was Oscar-nominated as well, and no wonder. Don't miss this stunning, mythic portrait of American greatness personified.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois
(1940) -- Abe Lincoln (Raymond Massey) doesn't want much from life except to live simply; perhaps find love, get an education, settle down and have a family. Yet his fate would turn out to be far different. A chance encounter with a lovely girl, Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard) on a trip downriver from his backwoods home leads him to settle in New Salem, where his popularity quickly finds him thrust into the political limelight. After a stint in the Illinois legislature leaves him soured on the political life, forces around the future statesman arrange to put him on the path to his destiny as American president. Based on a Pulitzer-winning play, but never less than cinematic thanks to James Wong Howe's gorgeous camerawork, "Abe Lincoln" is a gripping account of the making of a great man. Reprising his stage turn, Raymond Massey's Oscar-nominated performance as Lincoln is definitive and his supporting cast includes the terrific Ruth Gordon as ambitious, driven Mary Todd and Gene Lockhart as Lincoln's nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Director Cromwell never shies from depicting the great man's famous complexities and insecurities, and the result is a film that convincingly shows just how close he might have come to never attempting the presidency at all. The election night drama will have you on the edge of your seat. Terrific viewing for history buffs, or anyone at all interested in the man and myth that is Lincoln.

(1982) - Returning to India from South Africa in the early 20th century, British-trained attorney Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) elects to forsake all worldly possessions and devote himself to the cause of Indian independence. Adopting a strategy of passive disobedience, Gandhi becomes a spiritual guru to his fellow countrymen and a formidable political foe in the eyes of the British imperial forces, as he guides Indians in their historic, nonviolent struggle for autonomy. The multiple-Oscar-winning "Gandhi" explores the life and principles of an extraordinary man who became an enduring example of holiness, humility, and humane resistance. Ben Kingsley inhabits his role with saintly authority, brilliantly conveying Gandhi's charisma and unwavering courage, while Candice Bergen (as photographer Margaret Bourke-White) and John Gielgud (as Lord Irwin) also shine in their respective roles. Melodramatic epic sequences -- especially the Salt March and massacre scenes, which required Attenborough to direct 300,000 extras -- are handled with graceful verisimilitude. A deeply moving, masterful epic.

These are all great movies in and of themselves, but today it feels especially right to think about the issues they raise: social inequality, the importance of integrity, and how one man forever changed the world.

Looking for good movies to watch? Top movie recommendations? For over 2,500 of the best movies on DVD, visit Best Movies by Farr

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