Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

mandela 75It’s a pretty traditional, by-the-numbers biopic that is neither poorly done nor especially memorable, at least under normal circumstances.




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It’s impossible to talk about the new biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom without talking about Nelson Mandela’s recent death. The press screening I attended was the day before Mandela passed, and of course Mandela’s daughter actually learned of her father’s death while attending a premiere for the movie. It’s a good time to celebrate Mandela’s life (as it always has been; no need for him to die to demonstrate that we should), and in its own dopey way, seeing the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a good way to do that.

But is it a good film? Not exactly. But it isn’t bad, and it will sate your bug to learn more about the man. Really, it’s a pretty traditional, by-the-numbers biopic that is neither poorly done nor especially memorable, at least under normal circumstances.

In it, Idris Elba (whom you may recognize as Stringer Bell from The Wire) plays Mandela, and the film follows him from when he was a young man through his days a prominent leader of protests, to his prison time, to his eventual (official) leadership of South Africa. It’s a big, sprawling, epic movie, as witnessed by how much of Mandela’s life it covers as well as the 139-minute runtime.

Generally speaking, when dealing with this type of subject matter (civil rights protests, specifically, regardless of the country in which they take place), I tend to veer toward movies that are closer to agitprop than this one, which is basically just a glossy Hollywood piece about an important historical figure. That said, the most interesting character in the movie in my estimation was Mandela’s wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), who stays pretty militant even as her husband mellows. Harris turns in a strong performance (not that Elba doesn’t; I’m happy to be seeing him get more film work as of late), and there’s a part of me that wishes this movie were about her as opposed to Mandela; despite my not being terribly well educated regarding Nelson Mandela’s life or apartheid in general, there wasn’t a lot in Long Walk to Freedom that I didn’t already know about Nelson, but it was interesting learning more about Winnie.

I expect Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to be a reasonably successful film. Like I’ve said, it’s solidly made and happens to be released at a time when a lot of people will be hungry for more information on Mandela. That’s fine. Over the closing credits there’s a new U2 track, “Ordinary Love,” which is crap, and betrays director Justin Chadwick’s original aspirations of artless hack work as opposed to the important document it has kind of fallen into being because of the timing of Mandela’s death. If you want to really learn more about Mandela’s life without the gloss or easy manipulation, you’d be better off with a copy of Mandela’s autobiography of the same name. | Pete Timmermann

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