Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who spent 27 years in jail and who played a fundamental role in the demise of that country’s apartheid system, died of a lung infection yesterday, December 5, 2013. Mandela was 95.
One of the best known political figures of the late 20th century, Nelson Mandela inevitably became a topic for filmmakers. Below are a few examples.
Idris Elba in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’
British actor Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on Mandela’s autobiography, and which opened this past weekend in the United States. Written by William Nicholson, the film — much like Richard Attenborough’s Best Picture Oscar winner Gandhi — is a de facto biopic (or rather, hagiopic, according to reviews), covering Mandela’s life from his childhood years to his election as South Africa’s first black president. Naomie Harris plays Winnie Mandela.
On its first weekend out, November 29-December 1, 2013, the Weinstein Company-released Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom took in $84,283 from four theaters, averaging an okay $21,071 per venue. Despite Idris Elba’s generally solid notices, Chadwick’s film has a mediocre 58 percent approval rating and 5.7/10 average on Rotten Tomatoes.
Relatively speaking, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom fared better in South Africa, where, according to distributor Videovision Entertainment (through United International Pictures South Africa), the Nelson Mandela biopic topped the box office on opening day last Thursday, November 28, grossing approximately US$74,000 and averaging about $860 per theater. With 23,000 tickets sold, Videovision says that’s a South African record for a non-holiday Thursday.
Curiously, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, whose at times violent political activism is depicted in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008. During the apartheid era, South Africa labeled Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization, a view shared by former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Like Thatcher, U.S. president Ronald Reagan refused to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Ronald Reagan 1981 quote: "Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we have ever fought, a country that is strategically essential to the Free World in its production of minerals that we all must have?"
Dennis Haysbert in ‘Goodbye Bafana’
In Bille August’s 2007 political drama Goodbye Bafana aka The Color of Freedom, Nelson Mandela is portrayed by American actor Dennis Haysbert. In the little-seen film, Shakespeare in Love‘s Joseph Fiennes plays racist censor officer and prison guard James Greggory, whose life and worldview are changed after he becomes acquainted with Mandela’s ideals.
Goodbye Bafana is based on Greggory’s autobiography, Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend, which was dismissed as untrue by Mandela’s friend Anthony Sampson. However, in Long Walk to Freedom Mandela recalled meeting with Greggory at the time of his release from prison in 1990: "In the years that he had looked after me from Pollsmoor through Victor Verster, we had never discussed politics, but our bond was an unspoken one and I would miss his soothing presence."
Morgan Freeman in ‘Invictus’
The best-known cinematic effort featuring Nelson Mandela is Clint Eastwood’s 2009 drama Invictus, which earned Academy Award nominations for American actors Morgan Freeman (as a god-like Mandela) and Matt Damon (as rugby team captain François Pienaar). In the film, adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Mandela is portrayed as a visionary, inspirational, and pragmatic leader who uses the masses’ passion for competitive sports to unite post-apartheid South Africa with the help of the country’s official rugby team. As in every good Hollywood movie, South Africa’s underdog team wins the Rugby World Cup and South Africans become as one.
Following his death, Nelson Mandela’s political platitudes have been popping up everywhere you look. One of those, from a 2000 speech at Monaco’s Sporting Club Monte Carlo, was: "Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."
Considering the intrinsically tribal nature of competitive sports, that’s a curious (rather than an inspirational) remark. And needless to say, history was considerably more complex than what is shown in Eastwood and Peckham’s Hollywood movie for the masses. In fact, one can only wonder what would have happened to South Africa had Mandela’s gamble not paid off, i.e., had that country’s rugby team lost the World Cup. Anyhow, once the rugby victory party was over, reality set in again, but the feel-good Invictus carefully evades that fact — much to the contentment of delusional moviegoers.
["Invictus, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Nelson Mandela Movies" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Ronald Reagan pro-apartheid South Africa quote via Media Matters, in an article discussing how U.S. right-wingers saw South Africa’s racist political system and how they reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela. Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom photo: The Weinstein Company.