Monday, January 13, 2014


Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 until 1999. In 1963 the apartheid government charged Mandela and others with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. They confessed to the sabotage and denied the rest but were convicted on all charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. This new film based on Mandela’s autobiography and adapted by William Nicholson avoids many screen biography pitfalls. Least compelling are the early sequences touching on his boyhood, his early years as defense attorney, his first marriage, his philandering, and his growing involvement with the ANC (African National Congress), which led to divorce. Once Mandela (Idris Elba) meets and marries Winnie (Naomie Harris), however, the film becomes more focused and takes on a greater urgency. His influence over the black population increases, but the peaceful demonstrations against segregationist policies yield only violent response. Mandela reluctantly turns to armed resistance by blowing up government buildings, which eventually leads to arrest and imprisonment. As Mandela campaigns for humane treatment during his 18 year stay on Robben Island, Winnie faces constant harassment by the government and is subjected to 18 months of solitary confinement. Upon release she becomes the face of the more militant ANC, and its clashes with the government increase in violence. Worldwide protests against apartheid spread in the mid-1980s, so government officials begin negotiations with Mandela, which lead to his release in 1990. While the film covers a vast swath of history, director Justin Chadwick keeps the pace moving while providing his sterling cast ample moments to shine. Elba gives a commanding performance that puts Mandela’s charismatic force on full display. Harris matches him by showing Winnie’s steel resolve and fiery resilience. Despite their subject’s importance to 20th century history, the filmmakers refuse to turn Mandela into a complete saint or sinner. More importantly they parse, and leave open to question, the ambiguous and treacherous line between armed struggle and terrorism.

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