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Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

The image of Nelson Mandela — sweet eyes and smile belying the power within him, the pain endured and the conflict he witnessed — is so much a part of our world. The most elemental, but not the only, crucial element to director Justin Chadwick’s vibrant, engaging film adapted from Mandela’s 2000 autobiography is to enlighten audiences about what makes the man tick. The movie also features a charismatic, muscular performance from Idris Elba and a flavorful, panoramic recollection of difficult eras.

The film glimpses Mandela briefly during his boyhood in the Xhosa tribe and then in young adulthood before bringing the man’s passion and energy into full focus. In the 1940s, as a young Johannesburg lawyer, Mandela (Elba) proves his mind and mettle against a racist, imbalanced legal system. As his first marriage dissolves, the charming, industrious Mandela joins in during the African National Congresses Defiance Campaign against apartheid and the nation’s new Afrikaner ruling party.

Not long after he marries social worker Winnie Madikizela (a sterling Naomie Harris), and the two have their second daughter, Mandela is arrested for sabotage, among other charges, and he’s sentenced to life in prison. The film shows his life on Robben Island and in a series of jails, leading up to his no-conditions release in 1990, as South African president F.W. de Klerk bends to international pressure. As the country continues to erupt in violence, Mandela runs for president. “We cannot win a war,” he says, “but we can win an election.”

Moments like that in writer William Nicholson’s screenplay resound beautifully. Elba, his early vibrancy giving way to a deliberate speech and purposeful manner, is consistently a force of nature.

Naomie Harris, fierce and front-and-center in her character’s own story, is indelible even as the movie rushes through Winnie Mandela’s personal changes. She and Elba spin nuance and complexity into strength. By the time Long Walk to Freedom winds up, the journey feels as regal and epic as the man who took it.

- Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News

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