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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas time release, especially when you consider the competition it’s up against. It doesn’t seem like your typical holiday fare, but with Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, the film couldn’t be more timely. Forget about the vehement debate about Mandela’s morals and beliefs that occurred after his death by American extremists with nothing better to do. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, the man led a fascinating life. While not perfect, “Long Walk to Freedom” is a captivating, rousing film with strong performances that is absolutely worth seeing.

The movie begins in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1942. Mandela (Idris Elba) is a lawyer who is frivolously battling a corrupt system that is oppressing blacks in the country. After a close friend is beaten to death by the police for no justifiable reason, he decides to spark some change. Thus begins his long, amazing journey fighting the white powers that demanded black subjugation, which landed him in jail and eventually led to his becoming the president of South Africa.

As a young man, after seeing that his efforts were being made in vain, his rhetoric turned to one of violence, almost like a Malcolm X of South Africa. War and fighting became themes of his speeches, which caused civil unrest and uprising. While many will disapprove of such tactics, the film makes it clear that this was a last resort for him. It’s not until violence is brought upon his people, most notably during the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, that he decides to take this approach. These moments are well realized in the film and even if you don’t agree with it, you understand it.

The issue is that the weight of his actions aren’t always felt, on neither an individual level nor a global one. Because the film takes place over such a long period of time, many details are passed over, so we don’t get to feel the attachment we probably should. The earliest example comes when Mandela’s wife leaves him and takes their son. This hardly registers as a blip on the radar of his life and in about ten minutes, he has already rebounded with, as far as we can tell, the very next woman he meets. This is a common occurrence for biopics that examine an entire life (or close to it) and this one too succumbs to such rushed faults.

Perhaps the larger issue is that much of the revolution that sparked the change we see today happened while Mandela was incarcerated. By focusing primarily on him, even during his prison stay, we fail to see the outside world changing. We rarely see the attitudes shift and when we do, we don’t see why. Mandela spends 18 years on a prison island and additional time in a Cape Town prison after the transfer that eventually led to his release. That’s a lot of time that passes by without much insight into the country’s unrest.

Luckily, these problems are offset by a cast who is more than capable of making up for the slack, particularly Idris Elba, who is able to show through the slightest subtleties the pain and sadness that tormented Mandela during this time. As Mandela grows older in the picture, Elba’s portrayal grows more distinct and different from his portrayal at the beginning. Mandela’s words, though simple, helped change the status quo of South Africa’s needless violence and white supremacy and Elba delivers those words with grandeur and passion. Although far from perfect, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is about as definitive a biopic of this important figure as has been made.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom receives 3.5/5