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Films to Celebrate Nelson Mandela on His Passing

Idris Elba Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

Former South African President and freedom fighter Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela passed away yesterday at the age of 95. He was the first Black South African president (1994-1999) and the first president of a modern South Africa elected in an election fully representative of all South Africa’s ethnic factions. President Mandela was imprisoned as a political prisoner by the South African government for 27 years of hard labor; following his release in 1990, he worked with then-President F.W. de Klerk to abolish the long-standing practice of apartheid or “apartness,” which oppressed the non-white majority.

As President of the African National Congress, his government worked towards correction of the societal ills wrought by apartheid. He developed a new constitution, expanded health care reform, worked to combat poverty and increase education, instituted land reform, and investigated past human rights abuses under the former apartheid government. Following his retirement from politics, he continued to champion human rights, fight poverty, and increase awareness of HIV/AIDS. For his efforts, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Soviet Order of Lenin, the Bharat Ratna, and many others.

President Mandela was such a seminal figure at the end of the twentieth century, many films sought to tell his story. The most notable of those feature some of the best actors, directors, and producers in film today, including Morgan FreemanIdris ElbaDanny Glover, Sidney PoitierDennis Haysbert, and Clarke Peters who have all starred as Mandela. 

The newly-released Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Based upon President Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, the film examines Mandela’s early life, his education and rise to political awareness, his 27 years of imprisonment, his presidency and subsequent activism and philanthropy. The film is directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and features “Ordinary Love,” a song by Irish activist rockers U2 written especially for the soundtrack. Producer Anant Singh began developing the project over twenty years ago when Mandela was still imprisoned. The film received its theatrical release November 29, 2013, less than a week before Mandela’s passing.

Legendary director Clint Eastwood‘s 2009 sports drama Invictus earned Morgan Freeman an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Mandela; Matt Damon, who portrayed François Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby union team also received an Oscar nomination. Based upon the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, it focused on the 1995 Rugby World Cup game that propelled his country forward in history. Prior to that season, those who opposed apartheid traditionally cheered against their own home team, as it represented prejudice and oppression for them. As they were set to play their archrivals, the undefeated New Zealand All Blacks in a years’ time, Mandela united with the Black majority South African Sports Committee and Pienaar to foster support for the Springboks from all South Africans, regardless of background. 

Mandela’s political partnership with South African President F.W. de Klerk is chronicled in Joseph Sargent‘s 1997 television movie Mandela and de Klerk. The movie stars Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine as the title characters. Filmed in South Africa, it features many of the locations where the actual events occurred. To enhance realism, the staged scenes are intercut with historical newsreel footage. A complex look at a complex and unique social phenomenon, this is one of the few films to focus on South Africa’s own ‘peculiar institution’ from multiple perspectives. de Klerk’s progressive Afrikaaner standpoint and the historical background of Die Groot Krokodil are given more than the usual two-dimensional glossing over in this emotional and honest docudrama.

Philip Saville‘s 1987 HBO television drama Mandela stars Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard as the acclaimed first couple. At the time of the making of this film, Mandela had been in prison for 25 years. The film covers the years 1948-1987 and chronicles his education as a lawyer and his maturation as a sociopolitical activist. At first, he advocates non-violence, but experiences a hardening after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. That atrocity was a turning point upon which he founded the militant group Umkhonto we Sizwe in association with the South African Communist Party and lead campaigns to topple the apartheid government. His activities lead to his arrest and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He passes the torch of struggle to his wife Winnie, who continues to lead the movement despite fierce opposition by both government and private forces.

The voice of the Allstate commercials, Dennis Haysbert, teamed with Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love and Running With Scissors) to delve deep into the relationship between the leader and his long-time prison guard James Gregory in Color of Freedom (released as Goodbye Bafana overseas). Over the course of 20 years, the two developed a strong bond of friendship that transcended Mandela’s strong activist bent and Gregory’s ingrained racism.

Mandela is a favorite subject for television dramas. Channel 4’s Endgame stars Clarke Peters as the venerated leader during negotiations to abolish apartheid. Leaders of the ANC, including Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and current President Jacob Zuma, met in secret with leading Afrikaaner political figures in Mells Park, a Somerset English country house to arrange Mandela’s release and the systematic dismantling and planned rebuilding of South African society. Endgame is unique amongst Mandela biopics in that it places less weight upon international boycotts against the nation and shines a spotlight upon the role the gold industry played in forcing South Africa’s hand. Englishman Michael Young (Johnny Lee Miller) communications head at Consolidated Goldfield, played an integral role in negotiations to insure a more or less peaceful transfer of power in order to maintain his company’s interests in the mineral-rich region. It is notable that both Peters and Idris Elba are alums from the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire. Indeed, playing Mandela onscreen seems a rite of passage into the upper eschelons of serious dramatic acting for Black actors. Expect for some aspiring director somewhere to tap Ejiofor with his impressive range and knack for accents to portray the fearless leader at some point in the future.


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Romney J. Baldwin

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