‘Mandela’ celebrates the triumph of the human spirit

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013). Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Thapelo Mokoena, Terry Pheto, Gys de Villiers, Jamie Bartlett, David Butler, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, Zikhona Zidlaka. Director: Justin Chadwick. Screenplay: William Nicholson. Book: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. Web site. Trailer.

Life can toss us some extremely trying challenges, but, no matter how difficult those tasks may be, we always have the power to overcome them if we put our minds to it. Such is the power of the human spirit, a quality of our character showcased in the inspiring new biopic, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

The struggle to achieve racial equality and social justice in South Africa was a decades-long ordeal that involved considerable strife and suffering. Under the auspices of apartheid, the nation’s legally sanctioned policy of institutionalized racial separation that was designed to preserve the leadership of a white minority over a black majority at almost any cost, South Africa was nearly torn apart from within. What’s more, over time, the country was severely ostracized, increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, especially when its harsh practices become more widely known around the globe. And one man at the heart the struggle became the symbol of that cause, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) (Idris Elba).

The film follows the life of this iconic figure through six decades of his remarkable odyssey. Beginning with his early days as a lawyer, the picture then charts his emerging activist efforts through his involvement with the African National Congress, a banned but formidable organization that pushed for the rights of the country’s black majority. What began as a largely nonviolent effort, however, eventually turned confrontational, especially when South African authorities began stepping up the brutality of their tactics, even at protests that, although vocal, were otherwise peaceful. In response, Mandela led his followers down a new path, one that included acts that might arguably be considered terrorist incidents but that he and the ANC considered necessary measures to make their voices heard.

For his efforts, Mandela earned the reputation of a hero among his peers and of a criminal among South African authorities. And, even though he was able to evade capture for some time, he was eventually caught, tried and convicted of acts of insurgency, crimes for which he and a group of his associates were sentenced to life in prison. However, despite being behind bars, Mandela’s legacy lived on, thanks in large part to the campaigns to secure his freedom spearheaded by his children and his wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris). Winnie’s activism brought her under scrutiny as well, resulting in her own incarceration but simultaneously prompting the rise of her own brand of militancy.

As the years passed and international pressure began marginalizing the African nation, authorities realized they needed to take steps to preserve the country’s very existence. But, to do that, they also knew they needed to address the concerns of the black majority. And, despite his criminal record, Mandela was seen as a bridge to that community, one that the government hoped to court to achieve an amenable solution. However, when approached, Mandela held firm to his convictions of justice and equality for the nation’s black population, a prospect the white ruling elite railed against. With their backs against the wall, though, the leadership slowly came to realize that it needed to compromise if the nation were to survive. And so, to calm growing pressures and to preserve order, under the direction of President F.W. de Klerk (Gys de Villiers), Mandela was released from prison and his demands were addressed, developments that opened the door to what would be his greatest accomplishment of all – his election as South Africa’s first democratically elected black president.

If nothing else, “Mandela” makes clear the importance of being true to oneself and one’s beliefs, no matter how difficult that may be. In the long run, doing so is the only way to materialize the reality we seek to manifest through the conscious creation process. To that end, we must take the essential steps of embracing integrity and overcoming fear to achieve the desired outcomes. Mandela embodied those qualities, and he saw them through to completion to realize the vision he held for his people and his country.

In the process, however, he also became acutely aware that we get back what we put out. So, even though he followed a violent path during part of his journey, he eventually realized that was not the path that would bring him the results he sought. He came to see how we reap what we sow, that violence only begets violence. Despite the injustices inflicted upon him, his family and his people, he knew he had to change his beliefs if he ever wanted to achieve a different outcome. He came to understand that peace begets peace, and he needed to adjust his thinking accordingly to see that goal realized. Through his struggle, he transcended his prior thinking, making his dissatisfaction known but through peaceful means, a shift in outlook that ultimately made his dream possible.

To be sure, taking this approach came at a high price. Mandela spent over 27 years in prison, and his incarceration took a heavy toll on his marriage, not just because of the separation from Winnie, but also because of the very different political stance she took during his time in jail and thereafter. Their differences led to their eventual divorce, a painful experience on top of all of the other sacrifices he made.

Yet, in spite of his personal travails, Mandela came to see the tremendous power inherent in forgiveness, a force capable of yielding incalculable rewards. Given what happened to him, it would have been easy for Mandela to become embittered and vengeful, and few probably would have faulted him for such a response. But, as Albert Einstein observed, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” and Mandela employed this notion in the solutions he came up with. And, as unlikely as his response may have seemed, it worked, ushering in a new future for the nation to which he devoted his life.

On balance, “Mandela” presents a fair, respectful treatment of its subject’s life, with phenomenal performances by Elba and Harris. It ambitiously attempts to cover a lot of ground in its 2:21 runtime, and it succeeds for the most part, although Mandela’s early days tend to get short shrift, the time when his activism was taking root. Much like another 2013 civil rights release, “The Butler,” the film might have benefited tremendously from a more thorough treatment of its protagonist’s life. It would have made for a longer picture, but it would have also resulted in a better movie.

“Mandela” is also good at telling a “triumph of the human spirit” story – far better than the much more celebrated “12 Years a Slave.” It’s true to this theme without resorting to repeated depictions of unbridled brutality to make its point. In doing so, the film is also careful not to depict Mandela as someone who walked on water, either. It takes a balanced approach in portraying him as an iconic figure who was also human, with all our faults and shortcomings, no matter what accomplishments we might achieve. The film also presents an excellent depiction of South African culture, especially its music and indigenous spiritual beliefs. The picture has been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, including best dramatic actor, and one Critics Choice Award.

South Africa – and the world – are better places for having had Nelson Mandela in their presence. His recent passing was a great loss, but his contributions to our planet are a lasting legacy that celebrates the man and the ideals for which he stood. The example he set is one to follow for anyone who cherishes freedom and all that comes with it, regardless of where or when we live. And, for that, we should all be grateful for the inspiration he provided us.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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