There is a great, often-repeated line from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” that says “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The new movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is a film that prints the legend of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century.
It seems fitting that this movie is being released only a few short weeks after the death of Nelson Mandela because in many ways it feels like an obituary. It summarizes his eventful life’s journey while emphasizing his positive attributes and soft-pedaling his negatives.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” isn’t going to give you a nuanced look at the fascinating complexities of this great man. This is fine, because that is the work of some future generation, as we don’t yet have the historical distance to fully measure Mandela’s legacy.
This movie’s job is to help build the legend and serve as a fitting tribute to a man whose nearly superhuman capacity for political forgiveness helped to heal a broken nation.
Mandela is played by Idris Elba, an actor chosen not for his physical resemblance to the man, but more for his ability to capture Mandela’s dominating and captivating presence.
Elba is one of those actors who demands your attention and he shows the confidence of a man destined for greatness when he steps into the shoes of a young Mandela who worked as a lawyer under the oppressive system of Apartheid in South Africa.
We follow Mandela through his first marriage and as he grows more politically active in the struggle for equal rights. The movie dutifully marks all of the biographical milestones, including his nearly 30-year incarceration and rise to the presidency, most of which were filmed in the exact locations where the actual events occurred.
But the heart of the movie, and where it moves beyond a mere history lesson, is when Mandela meets his second wife, Winnie (played forcefully by Naomie Harris).
Nelson and Winnie both share the same political ideals and both endure brutal treatment, including imprisonment, at the hands of white South Africans.
Winnie’s outrage reflects our own and she reacts the way 99 percent of us would in her situation, as her experience leaves her bitter, vengeful, and militant.
It is through Winnie that we are able to see why Mandela was such a great man in that he was able to see beyond his own mistreatment. He realized how powerful forgiveness was both personally and politically, and he had the strength of conviction to never turn his back on his ideals or show a trace of weakness as he forgave his tormenters.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is an important movie in that it shows all that Mandela did, why he is worthy of praise, and how he became such an aspirational figure.
As a movie, it’s not all that powerful or insightful beyond the basic facts (which are plenty powerful and insightful on their own) but that’s not really the point. As those who shared a slice of history, it is important for us to recognize that Mandela’s story is one we must share and hold up as an example for future generations.
It might make for dry movies, but it’s our job to print the legend.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content, and brief strong language.