Image Entertainment // 2007 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 5th, 2008
From a prison cell, one man changed history forever.
It's the Nelson Mandela story, starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and Dennis Haysbert (24) as Mandela.
It's 1968, and South Africa is still under the oppressive apartheid regime, with four million whites controlling a country of over twenty million blacks. James Gregory (Fiennes) is a prison guard, assigned to the prison where political activist Nelson Mandela is being held. Gregory subscribes to the apartheid system, but his racist tendencies are tested as he gradually forms a tenuous relationship with Mandela.
Fast forward, and political unrest and violence continue to plague the country, and international pressure weakens the fractured economy, Gregory finds himself charged with watching over Mandela and his closest friends, a pivotal role that will bring him closer to the man that will challenge his core beliefs.
Well-staged, well-acted and dealing with historical subject matter that doesn't get a whole lot of attention, The Color of Freedom manages to get past its woefully generic title and offer up an engaging look into the tumultuous history of a racially divided nation.
Before I go any further, I'll confess that my knowledge of South African history and Nelson Mandela's biography are is cursory at best. So don't expect me to comment on the veracity or accuracy of the events depicted. There are much more knowledgeable people out there who can offer keener insights into this important part of world history.
As for the movie, it is, as I said, engaging and nicely executed. Since the film is inspired by the real James Gregory's memoir (Goodbye Mafana), the focus of the narrative rests on Fiennes's character. It's actually an interesting and effective choice -- and probably an obvious one, since Mandela spent 27 years in prison and the lack of scene settings would likely have hurt the flow of the film -- and Fiennes is up to the tack of shouldering the responsibility. We all know the guy has the skills to pay the bills, but he's exceptional here as the conflicted prison guard who squares off with the apartheid system he's always known and his own sense of what's right. And of course Mandela has something to do with that as well, prodding his conscience.
Another confession. Going into this thing I thought I was going to have a hard time buying Haysbert as Mandela. Sorry, but when I see the guy I can only think of President David Palmer and/or the greatest insurance pitch-man of all time. But Haysbert holds his own. His stilted line delivery -- no doubt developed from the actual Mandela's speaking style -- is sometimes distracting, but he consistently brings a calming demeanor to his performance.
The only thing, I didn't quite buy into was the duo's friendship. It's assumed that they are BFFs, but I missed the deep, impacting discussions the two would have that would build that bond. Their dialogue is brief and often in passing. I was banking on Gregory and Mandela's friendship to produce some hugely powerful moments, and yes, there are moving elements, but I didn't get that emotional dynamite I was hoping for.
The history of South Africa and its gradual moving away from apartheid is juxtaposed nicely with the interplay between the two leads. I found it interesting, though I could see where the methodical pace of the film could turn some people off.
The film production is handsomely mounted, and director Bille August captures some beautiful shots of the countryside. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is attractive throughout and the 5.1 surround mix may not have a ton to do but it's clean. "Remember Mandela" is an old-school documentary, but it's substantial -- and the lone bonus feature.
Good stuff, The Color of Freedom. A bit slow, but interesting and worth looking into if you want to get a perspective of a troubling slice of racial disharmony.
Not Guilty. Court Adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R