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Mandela: Long Road to Freedom presents the story of a man’s journey and how his pursuit of freedom changed over a lifetime.
Trigger Warning(s): Violence against women and children; racial triggers;
Review (with Spoilers)
After seeing Winnie, it was hard to not look forward to this take on Nelson Mandela. With Idris Elba championing the movie, and it seeming more geared toward the history than a sensationalized story, it became something hard to ignore. Plus, perhaps the biggest thing which draws me to this movie is lack of knowledge. Africa’s history is something which, at least in my education, had only focused on Egypt. There was no mention of Shaka Zulu, Haile Selassie, or any other figures and even in modern media they aren’t given their just due. But, in recent years, with Mandela’s life becoming the subject of various movies, perhaps this should be considered the pinnacle.
Characters & Story
The story of Long Walk to Freedom is rooted in Nelson Mandela’s (played by Idris Elba) journey from a young man of the Xhosa tribe to a lawyer, to a revolutionary who would become the prominent figure of a nation. During this journey, we are presented with all sides of the man. Be it the hot shot lawyer who is a bit of a womanizer; the man who thinks of himself as no lesser than his fellow white citizens, no matter how they look or speak to him; or the man whose intentions mirrored other civil rights leaders who simply wanted to raise the status of their people so that their children, and future generations, would never have to go through the heartbreak and struggle they did.
The first half of the film features the rise of Mandela and in this part, we are presented this witty young man who has all the energy and camaraderie needed to get his oppressors attention. This includes bombings, being chased while in exile, and us watching events unfold as if this isn’t a biopic but a well-written action movie. The second half though slows things down dramatically and shows how his early years influenced a culture which took to violence since peaceful protest never gave the people more than a gun aimed at their heads, or a prison sentence. But, being that Mandela sacrificed half his life in prison, upon opportunity, we are shown a man trying to use his final decades to make it so that the time lost would not have been sacrificed in vain.
First and foremost, I love how the first half of the film is presented. In this part, Elba is allowed to use his charm, his wit, and all the traits which make him a sought out actor to the fullest. Also, I loved how there was a good balance between noting factual events, but realizing that you have an audience which wants to be entertained as much as it wants to be educated. For example, I was very fond of the way they handled Winnie Mandela (played by Naomie Harris) in this movie. Now, while Winnie is certainly not the point of focus, in comparison to the motion picture Winnie, while you may miss some facts, I felt her part in the history of South Africa was scripted in such a way where she didn’t feel like simply Mandela’s love interest, nor a woman who took her famous last name and tried to do what was needed for her to become the face of the revolution.
Alongside that note, I must also say how much I loved the music used in the film and the visuals. Outside of one Bob Marley, and Public Enemy track, everything feels very rooted in South African culture, as it should be. And with all that said, I must note the issues.
To me, there are two main issues when it comes to this film: The first one is that I don’t feel like you can get a strong emotional reaction out of this film, despite the excellent performances, and then the second issue being the tone shift which comes in the second act. You see, in the first half of the film, things are in a fast pace and we meet Mandela, learn essential facts, watch him rise as the face of the ANC, and see him actively fight oppression through whatever means necessary. However, once Mandela is imprisoned the second half begins and the tone changes drastically. Elba no longer is this charismatic figure, but a man who either due to his fleeting youth; a growing sense of maturity; if not him realizing he has been temporarily beaten, loses that charisma and seemingly is just an old man looking to make his sacrifices mean something.
With that, the 2nd half makes it so Long Walk to Freedom portrays Mandela less like an active participant in the struggle, and more so the man behind the scenes who can be considered a watchful observer. This change makes it so not only does the film become tiresome, but not seeing Mandela amongst the chaos, if not leading it, makes it so the violence almost feels “otherly,” for a lack of a better term, and not connected to the man himself. Making it hard, at least for me, to not find the violence Winnie seems to be in the middle of, to almost be like that is her story and separate from his, which admittedly said feelings may be due to watching Jennifer Hudson’s take on Winnie.
Overall: TV Viewing
I would say the film is worth seeing once because of the subject matter. However, spending 2+ hours in a theater stuck on this is something hard to recommend. If the tone of the first half was kept up in some form or fashion in the second, I would say it would be worth seeing in theaters or renting on DVD, but due to the drop in pace, it is hard to really say this needs your immediate attention.