Nelson Mandela death: Mandela's life on screen

December 6, 2013 12:36 PM

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Nelson Mandela death: Mandela's life on screen

He led a life filled with drama, struggle and political triumph, so it comes as little surprise that Nelson Mandela - who has died at the age of 95 - was one of the most portrayed global figures of the past 50 years.

Actors including Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman have all played the former president of South Africa on screen.

The most recent actor to take on the role is British star Idris Elba, who plays the lead in a film adaptation of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk To Freedom.

News of the former leader's death was announced at the end of the film's royal gala screening in London on Thursday.

Elba has described the role as "the greatest challenge of his acting career".

The mission for all those actors, aside from capturing Mandela's famous voice and mannerisms, has been to find the man beneath the popular image.

As Elba's co-star on The Wire, Clarke Peters - who played Mandela in the 2009 film Endgame - told the The Telegraph: "I was absolutely overawed. Wouldn't you be? How would you like to play the Queen?"

Peter Machen, the director of the Durban Film Festival, agrees it is a hard role to pull off, and goes beyond mere physical likeness.

"He was one of the icons of the 20th Century and you can only go so far with make-up and prosthetics.

"People are always going to see what is not there, rather than what is there with this particular performance."

Arguably the most famous of the big screen portrayals of Mandela was Morgan Freeman's Oscar-nominated performance in Clint Eastwood's Invictus.

That film told the story of Mandela's attempts to unite the South African nation behind their national rugby union team, the Springboks, as the country prepared to host the 1995 World Cup.

Rugby was seen by black South Africans as a "white Afrikaner sport" and at games they would support whichever team was playing South Africa.

Before production, Mandela himself had apparently given his blessing to the casting of Freeman.

Speaking at the time, Freeman told the BBC it took "chutzpah and arrogance" to play the statesman.

"I met him early on and told him that if it did come to pass, that this movie would be made, that I would need total access to him - to be able to look into his eyes and hold his hand.

The role, opposite Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, landed Freeman his fifth Oscar nomination.

But while praised by the Academy, not all were convinced by Freeman's efforts to "inhabit the role".

The Telegraph called him "an obvious choice to play Mandela. After all, he's already played God." The review added: "He's so right that there's no friction or frisson."

South African film critic Machen agrees saying: "That's the problem with casting famous actors to play Mandela, because their off-screen personality overtakes the movie."

In 2012, it was the turn of another Oscar nominee, in the form of Terrence Howard, star of Hustle & Flow.

He played a much younger Mandela in the 2011 film Winnie - which focused on Mandela's former wife, played in this version by Jennifer Hudson. The film did not make it to UK cinemas.

"The reading here of a passionate yet complex character feels self-conscious bordering on awkward, even descending into caricature at times," it added.

Similar criticisms were levelled at British actor David Harewood, who took on Mandela in the BBC Four drama Mrs Mandela, where he starred opposite the Bafta-nominated Sophie Okonedo.

Once again, much of the drama focused on the female protagonist and her personal battles as a black woman in apartheid-era South Africa.

The Arts Desk said: "Harewood's enforced absences at the state's pleasure curbed his opportunities for dramatic fireworks." It added that "frankly [impressionist] Rory Bremner does a vastly superior Mandela voice".

Harewood, a respected stage actor, admitted at the time he was "terrified" of the role.

"I started with the myth, an icon, but the research led me to the man," he told the The Independent. "Once I got the man, I felt it was just a character I had to play and I didn't feel burdened by any sort of responsibility."

The film's director, Michael Samuels, added: "To ask an actor to play someone who is a basically a living saint is extremely difficult. What I wanted was the actor to inhabit a real person.

"You have to treat him as a real man with foibles, good things and bad things, and if you can access that part of him, then hopefully you get a 3D character on the screen."

American actor Dennis Haysbert, better known to TV audiences as US President David Palmer in the series 24, starred opposite Joseph Fiennes in the drama Goodbye Bafana in 2007.

Fiennes played Mandela's prison guard James Gregory, and the film tells the fictionalised story of their relationship.

The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Bear, the festival's top prize.

Speaking to journalists at the time, Haysbert said: "Every night I went home, I would have a glass of wine and just cry.

"Although he has no problem conveying the dignity with which Mandela carries himself," the review added, "the sketchy script offers him no way of getting under his skin."

Both Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine were in the running for a Golden Globe for their 1997 film Mandela and de Klerk.

Ten years earlier, Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover took on the title role in a TV movie simply titled Mandela and was nominated for an Emmy the following year.

Even before that, actor George Harris - who has since starred as Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter films - played Mandela in an episode of the BBC series Prisoners of Conscience in 1981.

But the earliest known performance came from the little-known actor Simon Sabela, who had been seen in films such as Zulu. In 1966, he played Mandela in the German TV dramatisation of his 1963 Rivonia trial.

Ultimately, Machen believes none of the films have so far captured Mandela.

"They work dramatically and they work in terms of narrative," he says. "But they don't work in the ultimate sense of being completely convincing."


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