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‘Mandela’ Biopic a Manual on How to Lead

Photo: Courtesy Photo, License: N/A

Courtesy Photo

Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, left) and other ANC defendants portray the 1963-64 Rivonia trial in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.'


Watching the press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (based on the 1995 autobiography by the South African leader) the morning after his December 5 death was a bittersweet experience, but nothing compared to what his daughters Zindzi and Zenani had to go through—they were at the movie’s London premiere and were informed of their dad’s passing minutes before the movie began. Offered the chance to postpone the screening, the Mandelas instead allowed the debut to proceed as planned.

Adapted to the screen by Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Les Misérables, Gladiator), the film follows Mandela through his childhood, early (and often violent) scuffles with the white regime, his trial and 27 years in prison, his victorious release and election as the nation’s first black president in 1994. In reality, he was South Africa’s first fully democratically elected president, period. The movie effectively examines the many battles Mandela had to face throughout his life not only against the white rulers, but against members of his own African National Congress and, even more difficult, his wife Winnie Mandela, who had remained loyal to the by-any-means-necessary approach of many in direct opposition with her husband’s more conciliatory tack.

The film doesn’t dodge Mandela’s appetite for women and his early entanglements with sabotage activities; even though he never directly killed anyone, one of the movie’s most poignant and disturbing scenes shows Mandela (a solid Idris Elba, of The Wire fame) hearing the news of the death of a comrade because “the bomb exploded too soon.” In just a few seconds, you can tell there’s a transformation going inside Mandela by looking at Elba’s eyes. In the last part of the film, Elba, in fully convincing Saint Mandela mode, negotiates with the white regime as a pure pragmatist, even though the ANC begged him to obtain full equality instead of the “shared power” deal the government was offering.

But Mandela knew better—as a true leader, he could sacrifice his family and his freedom but not his principles, and was willing to pay the ultimate price for it. He knew something was better than nothing and that the power of love would soon deliver more. After 27 years in jail, he came out even stronger than before, but in his heart there was no room for revenge. That inability to cause harm, his capacity to listen and make himself heard, coupled with his great political intelligence, allowed him to sit down with the very same people who had imprisoned him and successfully negotiate the liberation of South Africa. But that was only the beginning of the battle with Winnie.

It’s hard to digest the fact that Elba got a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for his role as Mandela, while Naomie Harris (Skyfall, 28 Days Later) didn’t. As Winnie, she steals the movie with her fierce portrayal of a woman whose dedication to the cause of freedom turned into uncontrollable rage (and many later scandals not dealt with in the movie). Once she began to see Mandela as “soft” after his liberation, their separation was a matter of time.

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