Thursday, July 03, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013) **

PG-13, 141 min.
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writers: William Nicholson, Nelson Mandela (autobiography)
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, Thapelo Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto

“Critic proof” is a term frequently used to categorize types of movies that are aimed at certain types of genre fans. These movies are critic proof because it doesn’t matter how bad they are, the fans will still eat them up. I believe the “Transformers” franchise has proven itself critic proof, given its universal critical disdain and its relentless success at the box office.

It often seems to me that dramatic fare can also be critic proof to some degree, if it involves a subject that is worthy enough of a cinematic treatment. If any subject would seem worthy enough, it would be the life of Nelson Mandela. Mandela is best known for bringing the South African nation together in racial unity after more than 50 years of racial unrest under the prejudiced rule of Apartheid. Before that he spent 28 years in prison, 18 under a life sentence in one of the country’s harshest prisons. And before that he was a leader in the civil rights movement against Apartheid who did not denounce the use of violence as an acceptable form of civil unrest.

The problem with the new movie based on his own autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, is that it knows these points about Mandela’s life but doesn’t seem to know much else. It knows that his first marriage didn’t work out and his second marriage, while successful before he was imprisoned, was doomed to fail upon his release because his philosophy about how to end Apartheid had changed so drastically from his wife’s.  But, there is no sense of who the man really is under his ideals. There is nothing to really show what attracted him to either of his wives or them to him. There is very little of the man in “Mandela” at all, just his deeds.

I don’t believe this can be blamed on Idris Elba, who does his best with what he’s given. There is just no time spent understanding his beliefs or their motivations. Certainly it is easy to understand why a black man would strive so fervently for freedom in a country that seemed to feed off its own disparagement of the black race, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to understand the man who took this passion and actually did change such a situation for everyone. Take Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” for example. That movie really ponders exactly what Mandela was trying to achieve. Morgan Freeman ponders it as Mandela. This movie just shows his actions to us. There is a sense that the filmmakers knew what was behind it all, they just don’t bother to let the audience in on it.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” seems as if it should be critic proof, given its subject. It falls short, however, of equaling the man it sets out to exemplify. Mandela’s accomplishments are more than just a collection of his achievements. He changed the way people thought about each other. The movie should help us to see how it also changed the man who did these great things.

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