Celebrated as a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, the late South African freedom fighter Solomon “Kalushi” Mahlangu has life-sized statues adorning city squares and a soccer stadium named in his honor. It’s only now, though, that his story has been told on the big screen, thanks to the feature-film debut of Mandla Dube, whose biopic “Kalushi” was a hit this week at the Durban Intl. Film Festival.

Eight years in the making, the movie, which traces the short and revolutionary life of Mahlangu before his execution by the apartheid government at the age of 23, has already been hailed as a “hugely important film” by a leading South African film critic.

For Dube, who once mooted telling Mahlangu’s story in a four-part TV series, “Kalushi” offers a chance to pay tribute to one of the iconic heroes of the liberation struggle on the “large canvas” he deserves.

“I feel that Solomon Mahlangu’s story is so large in scope that it deserves the cinema,” he says.

A street hawker turned freedom fighter, Mahlangu joined the struggle against apartheid as a teenager. After being brutally beaten by the police, he fled the country to receive training in Mozambique and Angola under the tutelage of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), before returning to South Africa as an MK operative.

Tracked by the police once he returned to South Africa, he was involved in a shootout that claimed two innocent lives. Convicted of murder and terrorism by the apartheid government, he was sentenced to death by hanging, famously proclaiming from the gallows, “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.”

Though his story is well-known across South Africa, Dube was surprised to find how little his students knew about Mahlangu during his time as a professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand a decade ago. “I just saw the apathy amongst my students,” he says. “They were not interested in the history of the country.”

Their apathy prompted Dube to rethink his own role as a filmmaker, asking, “What are we here for? What kind of story do we want to leave behind?”

“Kalushi” is the first in a proposed trilogy on historic chapters from the anti-apartheid struggle, which the helmer says was inspired by Oliver Stone’s famous trio of films on the Vietnam War. For Dube, though, his “legends of freedom” trilogy is more than just an homage: a graduate of the American Film Institute, he was mentored by cinematographer Robert Richardson, who worked with Stone on “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

In L.A., Dube honed his craft alongside such greats as Bill Dill, Wally Pfister and Allen Daviau, then cut his teeth shooting rap videos for the likes of Keith Ward before working on a number of Hollywood films, including “The Italian Job” and “Men in Black 2.”

When he returned to South Africa, after spending large portions of nearly two decades abroad, he was emboldened by the progress in the film sector. He credits government bodies like the National Film & Video Foundation and the Dept. of Trade Industry with “breaking that barrier [and] introducing black directors and producers into the fold.

“They’ve given a lot of support trying to break the old status quo of only white directors being there to tell stories,” he says.

The changes South Africa has witnessed in recent years have spread far beyond the film sector. The apathy that inspired Dube to make “Kalushi” a decade ago has been replaced by a roiling protest movement in the past year, with tens of thousands of students taking to the streets to call for wide-ranging reforms.

At marches demanding an end to tuition fees, Dube says protesters have often sung a praise song for Mahlangu, who died nearly two decades before most of them were born.

“It’s just serendipity,” he says. “A revolution of that nature taking place now…it’s amazing.”