“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” premiered last night in Toronto to standing ovations and a lot of tears. It doesn’t hurt that star Idris Elba has become something of a rock star from his BBC series, “Luther.” He gives an Oscar worthy performance as Nelson Mandela, carrying the sweeping epic on his shoulders in just about every frame in Justin Chadwick’s knockout film.
Everything about “Mandela” is a home run, which was clear from the response at Roy Thomson Hall. It also makes Elba now one of four possible black candidates for Best Actor this year– including Chiwetel Ejiofor from “12 Years a Slave,” Forest Whitaker as “The Butler” and Michael B.Jordan in “Fruitvale Station.” No kidding– this is now extremely possible given the magnitude of all the performances.
“Mandela” is more than just Elba, although it’s hard to imagine the movie without him. He gets Mandela’s voice, walk, and comportment beautifully without making the performance an imitation. What Chadwick does so well with the whole movie is to make Mandela’s well known saga feel fresh, and frightening, as the civil rights leader spends 27 years in prison separated from the world and his family.
You can’t help but think about the parallels between Mandela’s plight and those suffered by the main character in “12 Years a Slave”– and realize they are in different centuries. Those 12 years are from 1841-1853. You would think human beings would have evolved in the next 100 years, but South Africa in 1953 was no different. And Mandela’s cruel incarceration seems even more destructive than ever. How could people be so stupid?
But Mandela is a man of peace, and not recriminations. When he’s finally released, and takes control of South Africa, he does everything he can to avoid civil war. Chadwick doesn’t gloss it over– the violence that followed the end of apartheid is depicted faithfully. But he never takes his eye off the main theme– and the result is a movie that will be a beacon of hope for everyone who watches it.
There are wonderful supporting performances, too. The largest of course is Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. We have two Winnies right now. Jennifer Hudson gives an amazing portrayal of the controversial First Lady in the current “Winnie,” which gives a little more detail and nuance to Winnie’s incarceration and path to corruption. That story is very much present in “Long Walk to Freedom” as well, and may be a little kinder. Both Harris as Winnie and Terry Pheto as the first Mrs. Mandela, Evelyn, are sensational assets to Chadwick’s ambitious, David Lean like achievements.
The sweep of “Mandela” is impressive, and it’s going to be on every top 10 list this fall.