Thursday, March 6, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Why do they keep doing it? Why do filmmakers continue to make biopics of famous historical figures that don’t reveal anything that we couldn’t learn from a documentary about the individual? Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom follows Nelson Mandela from the early 1940s when he was a young lawyer until the mid-90s when he was elected the first black President of South Africa. Big deal! Mandela was a great man. He did great things for his country and helped lead the movement – from prison! – to end Apartheid. But what do we learn about him from Justin Chadwick’s sprawling epic that covers fifty years of his life?

There is so much material that all the specifics of who he was get lost in the shuffle. The screenplay, by William Nicholson based on Mandela’s autobiography, jumps from moment to moment, ticking off the boxes on a list not only of Significant Moments from Mandela’s life, but also of what the conventions of the genre demand. So his early courtroom scenes lay the ground for his later activism when he embarrasses a while female witness to the point that she refuses to testify and the accused black woman goes free.

It does on to chronicle his rise as a player in the African National Congress and their eventual use of violent measures to achieve their goals. For that, Mandela narrowly avoided a death sentence and instead went to prison for nearly three decades. When the characters speak, they talk in aphorisms and metaphor and Big Pronouncements, all suspiciously sounding written with the benefit of hindsight.

Idris Elba is fine as Mandela, although perhaps a little too menacing in his physical presence. Movies about larger-than-life figures tend to work better for me when they focus on one brief period or one specific aspect of the person’s life. The most intriguing parts of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are the scenes that develop his relationship with his second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), who made a stronger, deeper turn toward violent activism after her own sixteen month imprisonment. I was interested to see how their marriage and ideologies failed to mesh after his release. Better yet, I’d like to see a movie where she is the main character. That’s the story no one really knows.

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