Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Released on November 29, 2013 0 comments

Back when his number one priority was performing, and not padding the kids’ inheritance, Robert De Niro was an on-screen force. Which was why, all those years ago, everyone took notice when he paid James Caan the ultimate compliment, saying he was so natural and polished an actor, that he looked like he was throwing it away.

We think about that often and certainly again this week as Idris Elba’s “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” hits screens in limited release.

It was hard not to be jolted when Elba came crashing into our consciousness as the hard-bitten and overly ambitious Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” the best drama to ever hit television. Morphing into a drug thug keeping tabs on a chain of Baltimore corners, Elba was intoxicating, equal parts menace and charming schemer. The dream was to take his crew off the streets and into legit enterprises, something that ended when he was snuffed by a rival warlord and a hell-bent Black Revolutionary. The character of Stringer Bell was every ounce a product of the streets that spawned him, an amazing feat considering Elba grew up in London and carries a heavy accent.

Since those heady days, he’s succumbed to a few movies that were far beneath his talent, like the awful “Prometheus.” Though he has picked up some excellent television work since ”The Wire.” His BBC show “Luther,” casts him as a damaged copper with more than his share of issues. The series is heartbreaking and tough-minded, never letting us forget just how mean life can be.

As for “Mandela,” his turn should offer a shot at an Academy Award. Like all biopics, it suffers somewhat under its own pretentions, but Elba is spectacular, bestowing upon his worthy subject not only the dignity he deserves, but a nuanced portrait that goes beyond the ordinary, one-dimensional reverence usually associated with such films.

We can only hope the Studio Toads will finally get it and make a move to put him in more challenging original stories. He’s too massive a talent to be wasted on cheap thrillers and hideous special effects.