Dec. 15, 2013 at 6:07 AM ET
Just as Nelson Mandela's life was about to unfurl on the big screen at the London premiere of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," the South African leader slipped away. Two of Mandela's daughters were given the news at the premiere and asked that the film continue while they rushed to be with family.
As Mandela is laid to rest this weekend, the film, based on his autobiography, is beginning to draw more attention. It will be released in most cities Christmas Day. Star Idris Elba received a Golden Globe nomination on Thursday, and has been praised for his towering performance.
It'd be impossible to include every highlight from Mandela's 95 years in one film, but the new movie manages to feature some poignant events. Here are just a few.
Order in the court
Two courtroom scenes are especially moving. In one, Mandela is a young lawyer, defending a black maid whose employer has accused her of theft. The white woman on the stand won't speak to Mandela as he attempts to question her, and the white judge informs her she can relay her questions through him. It's just another reminder of the degradation blacks faced under apartheid. But the more famous courtroom scene is when Mandela himself is on trial. In a famous three-hour speech (not depicted in full, of course), Mandela even offers up his life, against his lawyers' wishes. He has fought, he notes, not just against white domination, but against black domination as well, seeking equality for all. "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve," he tells the court. "But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Long pants victory
When Mandela and fellow members of the African National Congress are imprisoned at South Africa's notorious Robben Island, only Ahmed Kathrada, who is of Indian heritage (and thus has lighter skin) is given long trousers and socks. The others, because of their race, are tossed pairs of shorts instead (and no socks). "Well, Kathy, it looks like you will have to be the daddy," Mandela cracks to Kathrada. But jokes aside, he knows that winning long pants has to be the first step to gaining some form of control even behind bars. And when that day eventually comes and the guards hand out long pants to all, the smile on his face is as bright as the sun.
Free at last
Mandela's prison cell was tiny and damp. He and the others spent their days breaking rocks into gravel in South Africa's blazing sun, and at first he was allowed only one heavily censored letter from home every six months. His mother dies, his son dies, and he's not allowed to attend their funerals. The indignities go on and on, and watching them onscreen is a reminder of how long Mandela endured. His freedom comes slowly and in stages, and those scenes are exhilarating. And when he is elected his country's president in 1994, he walks down a hallway of white South African military leaders and each one snaps to attention with a crisp salute. It's a moment that had to have shocked even Mandela himself.