Nelson Mandela: Unlikely Hollywood Action Hero

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

Elder statesman. Proponent for peace. International icon. Man of action.

Yes, on his 95th birthday — as he continues to be "steadily improving" after weeks in a South African hospital in critical condition — we are getting a glimpse of the man as we've rarely seen him on screen before.

Meet the heroic movie figure portrayed by the smoldering Idris Elba in the exclusive trailer for "Mandela."

Watch exclusive trailer debut for 'Mandela':

Idris Elba in 'Mandela'
Idris Elba in 'Mandela'

The new film from director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and "Gladiator" screenwriter William Nicholson depicts the anti-apartheid crusader in his formative years as a young, vital man willing to risk his life to end racial and economic injustice in his native land.

"Mandela" follows Elba (currently fighting for freedom in "Pacific Rim") as Mandela from his early days as an aspiring lawyer and member of the African National Congress's Youth League (an activist group struggling to defeat repressive laws against black South Africans through peaceful means), to his long stay in prison after he was convicted of treason. The film climaxes with Mandela, finally freed from prison, becoming the first black president in a post-apartheid South Africa.

The trailer showcases Elba in a reasonable resemblance to the iconic leader, thanks to accurate period costuming and hairstyling. While British, Elba admirably captures the rhythms and cadences of Mandela's speech. Elba also brings a genuine force and commitment to his performance, especially in the excerpts from Mandela's infamous treason trial, as he declares, "My Lord, it is not I, but the government that should plead guilty," and "freedom — it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Compare the film's version to Mandela's real trial speech:

The trailer doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of Mandela's work with the ANC. In one excerpt, Mandela and his comrades learn how to make bombs, and elsewhere he says with measured anger, "For 50 years, we've been talking peace and non-violence … not any more."

But the trailer also offers a look at Mandela the husband and father, as he woos the beautiful and headstrong Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris of "Skyfall"), and ultimately pronounces his greatest goal: "I have beautiful children and a beautiful wife. I want them to walk free in their own land."

A suitable birthday present, don't you think?

"Mandela" will march into theaters on November 29.