Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Fana Mokoena, Simo Mogwaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Gys de Villiers, Robert Hobbs, Carl Beukes, A.J. van der Merwe, Andre Jacobs, Nomfusi Gotyana, Michelle Scott. Directed by Justin Chadwick

One of the most influential and beloved figures of the 20th century would have to be Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years and became the poster boy for South African oppression under the government of apartheid but also a symbol of hope for the South African people. His recent passing set off a wave of mourning and celebrations of his life not only throughout South Africa but around the world. However despite his notoriety many Americans aren’t all that familiar with the details of his story.

Mandela (Elba) started out as a lawyer who merely wanted to practice law in his native land. He was showing some success at it, unafraid to stand up to white accusers of black innocents. This didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of the fledgling African National Congress, an organization that looked to lobby for the rights of the black majority in the white-dominated South African government. Mandela wasn’t especially interested in politics, to be honest.

However soon it became clear that the laws of South Africa were becoming more and more repressive as apartheid began to be codified as a way of life. Mandela felt he had no choice but to become involved politically and it turned out that he was a natural leader and orator. This definitely didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of Winnie Madikizela (Harris) whom he would later marry.

However their time together was short. Not long after they got married, a peaceful protest at the Sharpsville police barracks turned into a massacre as panicked police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters who wished to turn themselves in for arrest for not carrying the mandatory paperwork all black South Africans were required to carry at all times. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC, including Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Moosa) realized that non-violent tactics weren’t working; they only brought on further repression and worse still, deadly violence.

The ANC went on a relentless bombing campaign, destroying edifices that symbolized the oppression of the white South African government. Their members went underground, chased by the police until at last they were eventually caught and sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island, the most notorious of South African prison complexes. The court could have sentenced them to death but knew that would lead to outright rioting and rebellion, so they were sentenced to life in prison.

From inside prison, the group and particularly Mandela became symbols even as Winnie continued to lead the fight from outside until she herself was arrested and subjected to brutality and torture. After being released, the embittered Winnie became much more radicalized and her vision of the future of South African began to drift away from that of her husband.

International and internal pressure eventually forced Mandela’s release and this forced the South African government in turn to relax apartheid and hold free elections which the ANC participated in as a political party and Mandela himself as a presidential candidate. He would defeat the incumbent President De Klerk (de Villiers) who ironically had negotiated to free Mandela and the rest of the ANC. Mandela was faced by anger and outrage directed at the white South Africans by the blacks – much of it led by his own wife, who came out against his call for reconciliation and forgiveness. Uniting the two races as one strong country might have been the toughest battle Mandela would face.

There’s no doubt that Mandela is a role model and a hero of mine. There is no doubting his courage or his convictions; I can’t imagine most politicians these days willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs can you? Nevertheless, I’m not sure if this film, based on the South African leader’s own autobiography does his legacy justice.

This is essentially a two-person movie; Elba and Harris. Harris has a difficult role to perform; Winnie here is portrayed as an initially supportive and idealistic woman who turns bitter and cynical as the movie progresses; it’s not the kind of change that makes audiences love you. Still, she does a fine job at showing Winnie’s inner strength and fire. However, her performance is sadly being largely overlooked.

That’s not the case for Elba who has been garnering some Oscar buzz for his although given the strong competition this year for Best Actor I’m thinking he has an outside chance at best for a nomination. Still, it’s a pretty incredible performance considering that Elba looks absolutely nothing like Mandela who was always fairly thin and scrawny whereas Elba is a burly, muscular man. They also don’t resemble each other facially. Elba however captures the great man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. When you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to Mandela himself.

Considering the events of his life and that for 27 years of it he spent in prison, there is a sense of compression with the movie as if we’re just settling lately on momentous events and giving them short shrift. In truth, Mandela merits a mini-series at the very least to cover all the things that happened both to him and South Africa in general. Still, you get a good sense of the events that surrounded him and shaped his point of view.

I would have hoped that a movie about Mandela would have been more inspiring than this one does. I get the sense that Chadwick was at a loss as to how to handle the Robben Island sequences. He does show some of the things the guards did but for the most part you don’t get a sense of how hard the imprisonment was on Mandela other than a single sequence in which Mandela gets a telegram that his son was killed in a car crash. He wasn’t given permission to leave the island to attend the funeral and you can feel his despair. Certainly Mandela must have had sleepless nights, self-doubt, despair. We don’t get a sense of that other than that one scene.

This is one of those might-have-been movies. It certainly could have been a triumph but unfortunately it doesn’t really achieve that feeling at any point. You do get a sense of admiration about the man and perhaps it’s unfortunate timing literally opening in limited release a week before the great man passed away and opening wide a few weeks after that has something to do with us not being able to get past that. After all, we’ve been witness to many heartfelt and detailed tributes to the man in recent weeks. This movie doesn’t really measure up to them.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba gives a powerful performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks fire. Loses focus during the Robben Island sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, some foul language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: News of Mandela’s death took place just moments before the film’s London premiere. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani were given the option of having the premiere postponed but chose to go ahead as planned. The news was broken to those in attendance at the conclusion of the screening by producer Anant Singh.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winnie Mandela

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: American Hustle

The Bang Bang Club


The Bang Bang Club

Ryan Phillippe: late for work again!

(2010) Historical Drama (Tribeca) Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Patrick Lyster, Russel Savadier. Directed by Steven Silver

It takes a certain kind of person to become a combat photojournalist. You have to have the courage to put yourself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot. You have to be able to distance yourself from the subject, because becoming emotionally attached will compromise your journalistic objectivity. However, when these things begin to blur the line between your career and your humanity, what then?

Greg Marinovich (Philippe) is a young freelance photojournalist trying to make a name for himself in the early 90s in South Africa. Apartheid is dying; Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and his African National Congress is demanding changes in the white-run nation. Meanwhile, minority black tribal workers are fighting with the ANC over wages, believing if they join the strike, they will lose their jobs and their families will starve.

It becomes the kind of war that we have since seen in Rwanda and Darfur – horrific murders and mob mentality. The police, who have no reason to love the ANC, are believed to be complicit. Greg is taken under the wing of Kevin Carter (Kitsch), a hard-living photojournalist who works at the Johannesburg Star along with Brazilian national Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld) and South African native Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach). Carter advises young Marinovich to ditch the telephoto and get up close shots; those are what publishers are buying, and making money is the name of the game.

Greg decides to get waaay close and goes into a Soweto enclave controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party, mostly composed of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Chased through the narrow streets, he is brought before a leader of the IFP and explains he wants to tell their side of things. While with these leaders, he witnesses a brutal murder and captures it on film. His pictures are purchased and Greg is given a job by the comely photo editor of the Star, Robin Comley (Akerman).

The four photojournalists quickly develop a reputation for taking risks and getting incredible shots of the upheaval that is rippling through South Africa. The photographs the group is getting are taking the world by storm, appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer for witnessing another brutal murder of a suspected Inkatha spy being set ablaze and then killed with a machete blow to the neck. However, he is forced to take an extended vacation when the South African police want to bring in Marinovich for questioning about what he witnessed; he knows if he identifies any of the killers he will have a great big target on his back and his usefulness as a photojournalist in South Africa will be finished.

By now Marinovich is in a romantic relationship with Comley and the four members of what has been termed the Bang Bang Club have become nothing short of rock stars – partying hard, receiving the adulation of women and barflies all over South Africa and kicking ass and taking names.

Particularly living the life of a rock star is Carter, who is constantly broke because of his prodigious drug use. Despite the pleas to keep him on, Comley is forced to fire Carter because he’s become unreliable and dangerous. Returning to the freelance ranks from whence he sprang, Carter wins a Pulitzer for a controversial photo of a vulture stalking a half-starved little girl. Carter is forced to defend his status of an observer, and not making sure the little girl made it to where food, water and medical care was available (the fate of the little girl, who had gotten up and walked away according to the real Kevin Carter, is unknown to this day).

As the end of apartheid nears, the friendship of the four men will be tested and their flair for entering dangerous areas and risking their lives will lead to tragedy. The Bang Bang Club will literally have their own bang bang turn on them, viciously.

This was largely filmed in South Africa and whenever possible in the actual locations that the pictures were taken. Many of the pictures taken by the photographers are recreated here, and you get the sense that like any great piece of art, the genius is as much accidental as it is a product of preparation.

The debate here is at what point does a photographer lose their own humanity in becoming an observer of humanity. Was the shot of the little girl compelling and heartbreaking? Absolutely. Should Carter have intervened? I believe he should have. There comes a point where you have to set aside your objectivity and become a human being. I would imagine there are a great number of hardcore journalists who would disagree, perhaps even vehemently. I’m sure the argument is that a journalist cannot do their job properly without objectivity. I grant you that – but any job that requires you to give up your humanity in order to do it properly is not a job worth doing – period.

Soapbox ranting aside, this is well acted. Phillippe, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career, achieves it here. This is by far the best work of his career. Marinovich is not just a thrill-seeker, but I think if you had asked him at the time Phillippe was playing him why he was doing what he did, he probably couldn’t have articulated it and Phillippe doesn’t attempt to. He simply sinks deeper into the morass of ethical and moral conflict.

Kitsch is also compelling as Carter, a man haunted by demons most of his life. Kitsch takes Carter from a self-confident, balls-to-the-wall combat photojournalist and deconstructs him through drug use and of course the nightmares of the horrible images he’s witnessed – and recorded – into a man lost and broken. It’s truly stellar work.

Now, I know that there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gonzo war correspondent, hanging out in bars and discos, swapping war stories, engaging in stupid macho behavior and drinking themselves into cirrhosis and I think that does the profession a disservice. Sure some of them are that way – type “A” thrillseekers who don’t think they’ve done their job right unless they’ve been shot at. Most combat photojournalists are professionals who don’t behave like frat guys at a kegger; they’re focused and generally, pretty low-key. They aren’t as effective in their work when they’re treated like rock stars; they are far better able to do what they do when they can blend in more.

There are a lot of questions asked here about the lines between observing humanity and being human. Personally, I think this should be required viewing at every journalism school in the country. Not because they should emulate the behavior of the Bang Bang Club – but because they shouldn’t.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific look at not only the final days of Apartheid but also what makes a combat photographer tick. Phillippe gives one of the best performances of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: A little overloaded with journalist testosterone disease – photojournalists as rock stars.

FAMILY VALUES: Although unrated, there were scenes of war violence, torture and drug use. There’s plenty of bad language and some sexual situations as well. .

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bang Bang in the name of the group’s title refers to the automatic weapon fire that accompanied their assignments.

HOME OR THEATER: This is available on Video on Demand until the end of the month; it might be harder to find at your local art house, but if it’s playing at a theater near you, by all means see it there.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans