The pitfalls of making biopics are manifold, from the trap of hero worship to the more pressing matter of distilling something as unwieldy as a person’s life into two hours. Those potential problems are magnified when the movie is about Nelson Mandela. It’s hard not to feel a bit worshipful when considering his epic accomplishments. And then there’s his life: It wasn’t just supremely eventful; it can’t be told without also delving into the complicated history of South Africa.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” does a worthy job of honoring both its subject and its audience. It can feel, at times, both overlong and oversimplified, but the story propels itself along while awakening in viewers some profound emotions. That latter achievement is thanks largely to the film’s star, British actor Idris Elba, who has transformed himself in recent years from an inner-city Baltimore drug kingpin on “The Wire” to a London detective with a dark side on the television series “Luther” to this beloved freedom fighter, who died Dec. 5. Elba looks not at all like Mandela, and yet his demeanor, not to mention his impressive accent, captures the icon. (Elba was nominated last week for two Golden Globes, one for his role in this movie, and another for “Luther.”)