Mandela Biopic Reveals Anti-Apartheid Leader’s Early Rise

The contrast couldn’t be greater.

As a frail 95-year-old Nelson Mandela battles a lung infection in Johannesburg, it’s a strapping 6-foot, 3-inch (1.9-meter) lawyer, ladies’ man and boxer who’s portrayed in the first half of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

The South African film, which made its world premiere this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, is also an unvarnished account of the early years of the anti-apartheid leader. That was a deliberate strategy, according to Anant Singh, a South African producer who completed the film after a 17-year odyssey that he says started when he won the trust of Mandela.

“He said, ‘I’m happy for you to make the movie, I trust you and I want you to show me with my weaknesses and my strengths, I’m a human being like everybody else,’” Singh said in an interview yesterday in Toronto.

Many aspects of Mandela’s life are well-known. The now-grandfatherly figure, who spent 27 years in prison for helping lead the movement to destroy the apartheid regime, went on to serve as president of Africa’s biggest economy after his African National Congress swept to victory in the first multiracial elections in 1994. A year earlier, he and former South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to transform the country.

As president, Mandela earned global praise for urging reconciliation and helped bring foreign investment back into the country after years of embargoes.

Long Walk

Less well-known to those who haven’t read “A Long Walk to Freedom,” his autobiography, is how Mandela came to join the fight against apartheid in the 1950s and 60s, his first marriage and his subsequent divorce before he met his second wife Winnie Madikizela.

The film depicts a brooding Mandela sparring on the rooftop of a Johannesburg building. It shows him as a fancy-suited lawyer carousing and dancing with women earlier in his career before he took up the struggle of South African civil rights.

Idris Elba, the English actor whose work includes the portrayal of menacing/charming Baltimore drug kingpin “Stringer” Bell in the HBO series “The Wire,” was chosen because he could portray the physicality and charisma of the younger Mandela, said Justin Chadwick, the film’s director.

Mandela “as a young man had this unbelievable energy and this high-octane life that was incredibly visceral, and I wanted to reflect that particularly in the film,” Chadwick said in an interview yesterday.

Wembley Concert

Elba also didn’t have “the stigma” of being a Hollywood icon like actors such as Denzel Washington, Singh said.

The film intersperses original drama and documentary footage to good, sometimes funny effect, all the while reminding the viewer how the world was watching South Africa by the mid- ‘80s. One of Mandela’s jailers asks him if he has plans to celebrate his 70th birthday, to which Elba, playing Mandela, replies “nothing of consequence.”

The film then cuts to documentary footage of the massive 1988 ‘Free Mandela’ concert at Wembley Stadium that attracted a reported television audience of 600 million.

Both producer and director said they wanted to make a film where everything was shot as much as possible in the original locations in South Africa, with people from those places serving as extras.

‘Very Important’

“It was very important to me that the film didn’t feel like it was shot at a distance,” Chadwick said. “It felt like you were in amongst them.”

Anant first raised the possibility of Chadwick working on the $35 million project three years ago at TIFF, as the Toronto film festival is known, when the director was screening his film “The First Grader.”

Chadwick said his first impression was that Mandela’s life was so epic as to make the project unwieldy, and the vastness of the subject made the project unwieldy. Singh nonetheless convinced him to travel to South Africa to meet some members of the Mandela family and others who had known the former president.

After that trip, Chadwick said he “saw a way to make it personal.”

“The film is about apartheid and history,” Chadwick said. “But it’s also about love and forgiveness and about the cost to the man and the cost to his family.”

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