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Nelson Mandela Movies: Apartheid on the Screen from Sidney Poitier to Marlon Brando

Nelson Mandela Long Walk to Freedom Idris ElbaIdris Elba in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

Nelson Mandela movies

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, Dec. 5, '13. 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 a.k.a. 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 masse's 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.

Sidney Poitier Nelson Mandela and de KlerkNelson Mandela on film and TV: From Sidney Poitier to Terrence Howard (image: Sidney Poitier as Nelson Mandela in 'Mandela and de Klerk')

As found on the IMDb, here are a handful of other narrative big-screen films featuring Nelson Mandela:

  • Darrell Roodt's Winnie Mandela (2011), with Jennifer Hudson in the title role and Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela.
  • Pete Travi's Endgame (2009), with Clarke Peter's Mandela as less a martyred saint than a skillful realpolitik negotiator. This political drama also features Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Hurt, Jonny Lee Miller, Mark Strong, and Derek Jacobi.
  • Zola Maseko's 1950s-set Drum (2004), in which Mandela is played – for a change – by a South African actor, Lindani Nkosi.

As reported by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, British filmmaker Peter Kosminsky (White Oleander, Wuthering Heights) “got into hot water a couple of years ago by proposing a film called Young Mandela, when Mandela was a fiery ANC soldier who very much did not believe in non-violence. The film has not yet been made.”

Note: The Nelson Mandela played by Sunny Wayne in Srinath Rajendran's Second Show (2012), is not the South African leader.

Nelson Mandela on television

The most notable television portrayal of Nelson Mandela was created by Best Actor Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field) in Joseph Sargent's 1997 TV movie Mandela and de Klerk, co-starring Michael Caine as F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who freed Mandela. Richard Wesley wrote the teleplay, while Tina Lifford played Winnie Mandela. Note: Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine had previously co-starred in another South African-set drama, the Ralph Nelson-directed 1975 thriller The Wilby Conspiracy.

Ten years earlier, Danny Glover played Mandela in another TV movie, concisely titled Mandela, directed by Philip Saville and written by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist).

And finally, as an actor, Nelson Mandela was featured in a small role as a Soweto teacher – who sounds very much like a well-rehearsed politician – providing a final lecture on human rights in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), starring Denzel Washington in the title role. Check it out below:

Marlon Brando apartheid A Dry White SeasonMarlon Brando in 'A Dry White Season,' James Earl Jones in 'Cry the Beloved Country': Apartheid movies (image: Marlon Brando in 'A Dry White Season')

Besides the Nelson Mandela movies discussed further up, South Africa's apartheid has been portrayed in a number of films in the last few decades. Among the most notable ones are the following:

  • Zoltan Korda's Cry the Beloved Country (1951). Based on Alan Paton's novel, this British-made film features Canada Lee and Charles Carson as two men struggling to deal with the disastrous consequences of apartheid.
  • Ralph Nelson's The Wilby Conspiracy (1975). Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine star as, respectively, an anti-apartheid South African activist and a British engineer on the run from South Africa's secret police, headed by racist Nicol Williamson.
  • Chris Menge's A World Apart (1984) is a family drama set in Johannesburg in the early '60s. Starring Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Jeroen Krabbé, the film – written by Shawn Slovo and based on her own experiences – was criticized by some because it was a (partly) apartheid-themed movie focusing on the plight of white people.
  • Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987). Attenborough, whose Best Picture Academy Award winner Gandhi was partly set in South Africa, tackled the story of white journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and black activist Steven Biko (an absurdly miscast – and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee – Denzel Washington). Much like A World Apart, Cry Freedom was criticized by some for having a white character at its center.
  • Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season (1989). Donald Sutherland stars as a white teacher who becomes an anti-apartheid crusader following the death of a black friend (Winston Ntshona). Also criticized for being an eurocentric apartheid movie, A Dry White Season turned out to be a box office misfire despite its stellar cast: Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Marlon Brando, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Susan Sarandon, Michael Gambon, Zakes Mokae, Leonard Maguire, and John Kani. Screenplay by Colin Welland and Euzhan Palcy, from André Brink's novel.
  • South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt's Sarafina! (1992). Set at the time of the Soweto Riots, when students rebelled against the implementation of Afrikaans as the language of education, Sarafina! stars Leleti Khumalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba, and John Kani.
  • Darrell Roodt's Cry the Beloved Country (1995), reportedly the first big-budget movie to come out of South Africa. James Earl Jones and Richard Harris star.
  • Tom Hooper's Red Dust (2004), with Hilary Swank as a South African-raised New York City attorney who returns to the country of childhood to help a local black politician (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who had been tortured during the apartheid era. (Needless to say, no connection to Victor Fleming's 1932 movie of the same title, a spicy, African-set romantic comedy starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, and Gene Raymond.)

'Something of Value,' 'Hotel Rwanda': African ethnic divisions on film

Though set in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising, Richard Brooks' 1957 drama Something of Value has a similar theme to the apartheid movies, namely, the lingering effects of colonial racism in Africa. Rock Hudson, Sidney Poitier, Dana Wynter, and Wendy Hiller star.

Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, focusing on the tribal hatred – turned genocidal – between Hutus and Tutsis (a legacy of Belgian colonialism), could be considered as another type of “apartheid” movie. The same could be said about Robert Favreau's Canadian drama A Sunday in Kigali / Un dimanche à Kigali. Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Nick Nolte are Hotel Rwanda's stars, while A Sunday in Kigali features Luc Picard and Fatou N'Diaye.

Marlon Brando A Dry White Season photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Image of Sidney Poitier as Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela and de Klerk: Sullivan Entertainment.

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.

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4 Comments to Nelson Mandela Movies: Apartheid on the Screen from Sidney Poitier to Marlon Brando

  1. moviefan

    “…an absurdly miscast — and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee — Denzel Washington”. What?!? Denzel was absurdly miscast? Not only did he, as mentioned, get an oscar nomination for that role, but having seen all of his films, in my opinion this was one of his finest ever performances. He played the role with dignity, wisdom, complexity, inspiration, drama, made exemplary speeches, was true to the historical accuracies of the story, learned the local accent… how was he miscast? Furthermore, he had an amazing chemistry with the lead actor, the brilliant Kevin Kline, and the two carried the movie together in what was an unforgettable film. In fact, everybody should see it.

  2. GregMoran

    You didn't mention “Catch a Fire”

  3. altfilmguide


    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. JoeLeydon

    What about The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) -a racking good chase thriller with Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier — that ends with the radicalized white protagonist doing the black protagonist a favor by blowing away a racist oppressor (Nicol Williamson)?