The adaptation of the autobiography of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was entrusted by Mandela to producer Anant Singh nearly two decades ago.
A rival, unauthorized version starring Terrence Howard as Mandela and Jennifer Hudson as his second wife, Winnie, was widely panned at its premiere in Toronto two years ago, and progressed to only limited release. This version, which co-stars Naomie Harris as Winnie, as well as having the backing of the Mandela machine, has been scripted by William Nicholson, Oscar-nominated for his work on Gladiator and Shadowlands.
We see Mandela from his early days as a lawyer, through his recruitment by the ANC to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual release. Elba makes a convincing statesman. His take on the icon is respectful and deft.
Elba, whose portrayal has met with rave reviews, didn’t meet Mandela himself, but spent time in South Africa talking to locals and visiting places key to the story (he even spent a night locked on Robben Island).
Condensing Mandela’s life into a two-hour film was a major challenge. An initial treatment employing flashbacks was tossed out. Nicholson told The Guardian newspaper: “What’s extraordinary about Mandela is cumulative. We’re gradually building up an awareness of what this man has been through to get to his moral victory. The crucial bit in the film is when he realizes his oppressors are more afraid of him than he is of them.”
The film is scheduled to open on November 29.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18 print edition.