Full Nelson as film world grapples with living legend’s legacy
WHEN Morgan Freeman took on the role of Nelson Mandela in Invictus the smart money was on him winning an Oscar. He was nominated – and then Jeff Bridges bagged it for Crazy Heart. C’est la vie. Freeman has often laughed about the gravitas he brings to his roles. Certainly he brought all of it to the table as Mandela, a role many claim is unplayable.
Now, in a move typical of the film world, two Mandela movies are at the starting gate. The first, Winnie, stars Terrence Howard as Mandela and Jennifer Hudson as his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The second, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie.
Winnie was completed two years ago and played, somewhat unsuccessfully, at the Toronto Film Festival before being put on the back burner. It has also come in for criticism from Winnie Mandela herself.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom can be seen as the official portrait. A 17-year project for producer Anant Singh, it has been completed with the co-operation of Mandela’s family and his foundation.
It is only coincidence that pits these two pictures against one another. And with Morgan Freeman’s film still looming in the recent past they are not the first attempts at capturing the essence of this living legend. He has also been played by Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert and David Harewood.
What comes across clearly is that these are movies designed for western audiences. The various leading men are American or English. To sell tickets in the US and the UK a South African actor – such as Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, who played Mandela on stage – would never do.
Howard and Elba are playing the young Mandela – the firebrand, the husband and father, the activist, the political prisoner. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was directed by Mancunian Justin Chadwick, the man behind The Other Boleyn Girl. It is reportedly the most expensive South African movie ever made, with those who have seen it pointing to Elba’s as a remarkable personification of an extraordinary man.
Darrell Roodt, director of Winnie, has alleged that his film was brutally re-edited, removing much of the detail. But perhaps international audiences don’t wish to get too bogged down in 50 years of South African politics. And maybe telling Mandela’s story from his wife’s perspective is not a winner. Which brings us back to Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. The word is that Chadwick has been scrupulous in his attention to detail, even down to recreating Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. And what of Mandela himself? Hospitalised again, he will be 95 on July 18. One hopes he at least will be able to rally sufficiently to give his opinion on the rival Englishman and American seeking to put their cinematic stamp on his legacy.