Born into South African apartheid in 1918 in a small Eastern Cape Xhosa village, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his protests and violent actions aimed at establishing equality for all. Now, based on Mandela's autobiography of the same title, director Justin Chadwick's "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" presents a more complete and complex picture of this exceptional person.
It begins with Mandela's tribal manhood-initiation ritual, moves quickly to his early years as a defense attorney, and then his rise to leadership in the ANC, the African National Congress. After the imposition of severe Pass laws, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Mandela explicitly rejected "the authority of the state that makes war on its people" and embraced violent retaliation. After a manhunt and his arrest, he and fellow protestors were sent for 18 years to Robben Island (June 1964), a place called South Africa's Alcatraz. External protests led to his release in February 1990 and eventual election as President.
To provide an overview of all these events, this two hour twenty minute film moves quickly, often too quickly, sacrificing depth for breadth, repeatedly eliding significant details. For example, on Robben Island, guards gave Mandela and, at his insistence, fellow prisoners some privileges and even played soccer with them because Mandela showed respect and befriended them. Only a mere hint of this emerges. Similarly, there's no acknowledgement of the literally blinding brightness at the quarry where guards prohibited the prisoners from wearing sunglasses, thereby causing macular degeneration. This would require one line of dialogue.
What happens is that scenes just begin to build some real emotion when the next episode interrupts and we're on to another chapter. In trying to do more, the result is a lack of our involvement, something the objective camera perspective further reinforces. Then, to press and compensate for what should be earned emotion, the music swells in the most sophomoric way, as if Mandela's character is not evident at every juncture.
Nevertheless, as Mandela, Idris Elba maintains the powerful presence he conveyed in HBO's "The Wire" and BBC's "Luther." His supremely expressive face registering sorrow, joy, and determination solidly anchors the film. Naomie Harris plays a strong Winnie, Mandela's wife at the time, and the supporting actors give excellent performances as well. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" isn't perfect but it does honor this truly remarkable individual. At a Landmark Theatre.