At the Film Center: A hero for our time, and a persecuted man


Film portraits of two very different men will play this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” offers a welcome tribute to one of the great heroes of our time. It shares billing with a Danish film about an ordinary man accused of child abuse in “The Hunt.”

No figure is more closely associated with the 20th century history of South Africa than Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. It is a happy coincidence that “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was released almost coincidentally with the great man’s death. Based on his autobiography, the movie provides an important piece of world history, and it is one of particular importance for American viewers because of our own racial issues.

British actor Idris Elba, well-known to American audiences for his TV roles in “Luther,” “The Office,” and “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” fully inhabits the man responsible for freeing South Africa from the grip of apartheid. Directed by Justin Chadwick, the two-and-a-half-hour film uses the traditional format of an epic to cover the central events in Mandela’s life, beginning with his boyhood in rural South Africa.

“Mandela” does not hide the blemishes of this great leader. Womanizing precipitated the end to his first marriage. Working as a lawyer in Johannesburg during his early adult years, he gradually commits himself to the African National Congress (ANC) and its campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. When the non-violent tactics of the ANC failed to bring change, eventually he turned to sabotage and violence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962, spending 27 years in jail before his release and eventual election as South Africa’s first black president.

Naomie Harris turns in a powerful supporting performance as Winnie Madikizela, Mandela’s second wife, who became an activist in her own right and whose strong views and violent tactics eventually alienated her from her husband. The two divorced in 1996. Films portraying anti-heroes have become far more popular than those like “Mandela,” but Mr. Chadwick has effectively woven in most of the relevant details of his subject’s life. He is a larger-than-life hero who deserves the tribute given to him.

In contrast, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” focuses on the fate of a kindergarten teacher, Lucas, accused by one of his charges of sexual abuse. The story is couched in a world where hunting serves as an important symbol of manhood, with idyllic scenes of Lucas, and later his son, hunting reindeer. If the issue addressed does not reflect the broad dimensions of global politics, it is in some ways equally disturbing. How does an adult, unfairly accused by a child of molestation, defend himself? In “The Hunt,” Lucas, played with great sensitivity by Mads Mikkelsen, enjoys the camaraderie of the men in his community and clearly loves the children he works with. Recently divorced, he is struggling to spend more time with his teenaged son, Marcus. Lucas has struck up a new relationship with a fellow teacher when his best friend’s daughter tells the head teacher at the school where Lucas works that he has molested her. The details are murky, but the impact is immediate and dramatic. Lucas is presumed guilty, and soon everyone at the school learns about the accusation. Other parents decide their children have also been molested, Lucas is arrested, and even after evidence clears him, he is turned into a pariah in the community.

Director Vinterberg shows how easily questionable suspicions can take over in a community like a virus run amok. Once the suspicions about Lucas are planted, there is no way to undo the damage. The movie ends on a partially optimistic note, but with an ominous, symbolic reminder of how Lucas is affected by a little girl’s overactive imagination. As different as “Mandela” and “The Hunt” are, both films explore the aspects of character that take the measure of a man, whether great or ordinary.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Thursday, Jan. 23, 7:30 pm; Friday, Jan. 24, and Sunday, Jan. 26, 4 pm.

“The Hunt,” Friday, Jan. 24, and Saturday, Jan. 25, 7:30 pm.

All films at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under.