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Friday, December 13, 2013

THE COLOR OF FREEDOM -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review was originally posted at in 2007.)

At first glance, the based-on-a-true-story THE COLOR OF FREEDOM, aka GOODBYE BAFANA (2007) looks as though it might be one of those dry, preachy historical dramas that so often turn into borefests.  But this story of a white South African prison guard whose contact with Nelson Mandela over a period of twenty years led to a close and sympathetic relationship is both moving and at times surprisingly suspenseful. 

Joseph Fiennes (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) plays James Gregory, a young family man and warrant officer transferred to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela is being held as a political prisoner. Since Gregory fluently speaks Mandela's native language of Xhosa, he is placed in charge of censoring Mandela's mail and monitoring his personal visitations. 

While at first a supporter of the virulently racist apartheid policies of the government, Gregory eventually comes to respect Mandela over time and recognize the brutality and injustice of the system.  As he secretly begins to help Mandela in any way he can, his actions draw increasing suspicion from his superiors and fellow warders, and end up placing both him and his family in danger.

While ably portraying Mandela as a man of quiet dignity and wisdom, the physically imposing Dennis Haysbert (HEAT, "24") visually conveys his near-mythic stature as well.  Joseph Fiennes is consistently interesting to watch as Gregory, taking us from his initial contempt for the "bloody caffers" all the way through his slow process of enlightenment and moral compulsion to revolt against the corruption surrounding him.  During a particularly brutal episode in which a fleeing black woman is beaten by a policeman and her baby flung to the sidewalk, he's forced to see the incident through the eyes of his horrified children, who naturally find such actions incomprehensible. 

Diane Kruger (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, NATIONAL TREASURE) is given a chance to display her dramatic skills to good effect as Gregory's wife Gloria, who fears that her husband's actions are jeopardizing their family and making them outcasts.  Patrick Lyster (THE BONE SNATCHER) is subtly effective as a mysterious government intelligence officer who sees Gregory as a useful tool in keeping Mandela's political influence under control.  And Faith Ndukwana adds to the pathos of the story with a realistic performance as Winnie Mandela. 

Despite the ugliness of much of the subject matter, director Bille August (SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW) gives us a film that is often beautiful to look at, while handling the intimate dramatic scenes well.  At times, we also get some of the nail-biting suspense of a political thriller, especially during a tense scene in which Gregory gains illegal access to classified documents, and later when his continued involvement in the government's handling of Mandela draws him into further intrigue. 

For me, though, the best scene in the movie is an impromptu stick-fight between Gregory and Mandela that mirrors similar competitions Gregory once had with his childhood friend, a black African boy named Bafana.  It's the one truly exhilarating moment of the film.

It's somewhat disappointing to discover, after the fact, that the real James Gregory may have fabricated some, if not most, of this account of his relationship with Mandela over the years.  But despite this, THE COLOR OF FREEDOM remains an involving and often moving story of a man whose basic human decency triumphs over a lifetime of indoctrination in the politics of hatred.

Buy it at


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