Nelson Mandela movies: South African leader invariably played by American or British actors
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. Mandela was 95.
One of the best-known political figures of the late 20th century, the South African leader inevitably became a “prestige” subject for filmmakers.
Below are several Nelson Mandela movie titles – curiously, most of them directed by and starring talent not from South Africa, but from Britain and/or the United States.
'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom': Idris Elba in poorly received biopic
British actor Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in British filmmaker Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), adapted by another Britisher, William Nicholson, from the South African leader's 1994 autobiography.
Like Richard Attenborough's Best Picture Oscar winner Gandhi, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 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 political activist Winnie Mandela, wife of the subversive revolutionary-turned-revered statesman. (Married since 1958, the couple were officially divorced in 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela became president.)
Perfect box office timing
With perfect timing, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opened this past weekend in the United States. On its first three days out, Nov. 29–Dec. 1, the Weinstein Company release took in $84,283 from four theaters, averaging an okay $21,071 per venue.
For comparison's sake, in late November 2010 Tom Hooper's The King's Speech – another Weinstein Company “inspirational” release about an English-speaking political leader – collected $355,450 at four locations, averaging an outstanding $88,863 per venue.
So, what could be the problem with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom?
One possibility is that in spite of Idris Elba's generally solid notices, Justin Chadwick's film has a mediocre 58 percent approval rating and 5.7/10 average among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics.
On the positive side, the Chadwick-Elba collaboration has, relatively speaking, fared better in South Africa. According to distributor Videovision Entertainment (through United International Pictures South Africa), the biopic topped the local box office on opening day last Thursday, Nov. 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.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning 'terrorist'
Ironically, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela (more on the Swedish Academy's honor further below), whose at times violent political activism is only marginally 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 his right-wing British ally, U.S. President Ronald Reagan refused to impose sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime. Here's a 1981 Reagan quote about South Africa, its uncompromisingly racist system, and its “strategically essential” minerals:
“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?”
In 1986, Reagan vetoed the U.S. Congress's Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act banning new American investments in and the importation of numerous products from South Africa. Shockingly (from an early 21st-century perspective), the Republican controlled Senate overrode the Republican president's veto.
'Goodbye Bafana': Dennis Haysbert in make-believe story?
In Danish filmmaker 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, British actor Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) plays racist censor officer and prison guard James Gregory, whose life and worldview are changed, Hollywood-style, after he becomes acquainted with Mandela's ideals.
Adapted by August and Greg Latter, Goodbye Bafana is based on Gregory's autobiography, Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend, which was dismissed as a fictitious account by Mandela's friend Anthony Sampson.
The film itself has been criticized for compounding the fabricated elements found in Gregory's tale – e.g., having the warden call the prisoner “Madiba,” which is supposed to be a Xhosa name implying respect, whereas throughout his book Gregory refers to Mandela in a less reverential manner, calling him simply “Nelson.”
In his own book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela reportedly mentions Gregory only twice. At one point, he makes it clear that, despite their cordial relationship, political debates were off-limits during his time behind bars.
Recalling his release from Rodden Island Prison, Mandela wrote:
“Warrant Officer James Gregory was there at the house, and I embraced him warmly. In the years that he had looked after me from Pollsmoor [Prison] through Victor Verster [Prison], we had never discussed politics, but our bond was an unspoken one and I would miss his soothing presence.”
James Gregory died of cancer in 2003.
'Invictus': Morgan Freeman & Matt Damon in feel-good sports/political drama
Albeit a box office disappointment, the best-known big-screen effort featuring Nelson Mandela is U.S. filmmaker Clint Eastwood's 2009 sports/political drama Invictus, which earned Academy Award nominations for American actors Morgan Freeman (as a god-like Mandela) and Matt Damon (as the Afrikaans-accented, Springboks rugby team captain Francois Pienaar).
Adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Invictus (“unconquered,” “undefeated”) portrays Mandela as a visionary, inspirational, and pragmatic leader who, with the assistance of the country's official (all-white) rugby team, uses the masses' passion for competitive sports to unite post-apartheid South Africa in the mid-1990s.
As in every cliché-ridden Hollywood movie geared to gratifying the masses' passion for happy endings, South Africa's underdog team wins the 1995 Rugby World Cup and South Africans become as one. Mandela is then heard reciting 19th-century British poet William Ernest Henley's poem “Invictus.”
Left unanswered is the question, What could have happened to South Africa at that difficult sociopolitical juncture had Mandela's Rugby World Cup gambit not paid off?
Pop political platitudes
Following his death, bits from Nelson Mandela's pop political wisdom – or just plain political platitudes, depending on your take – have been popping up everywhere you look. The one below is from a 2000 speech at Monaco's Sporting Club Monte Carlo:
“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 inspirational – remark. And needless to say, history has proven itself to be quite a bit more complex than what is shown in Clint Eastwood and Anthony Peckham's feel-good Hollywood movie.
After Invictus' end credits have finished rolling, fast forward to December 2012. The subheading of David Smith's The Guardian article “South Africa still a chronically racially divided nation, finds survey,” reads:
Reconciliation barometer poll finds 43% [of South Africa's population] rarely or never speak to someone from another race, denting rainbow nation ideal.”
More Nelson Mandela movies
Here are a handful of other big-screen narrative features in which Nelson Mandela is seen:
- South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt's Winnie Mandela (2011), with Americans Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard as Winnie and Nelson Mandela.
- English filmmaker Pete Travis' political drama Endgame (2009), with (New York City-born) Clarke Peters' Mandela as less a martyred saint than a skillful realpolitik negotiator. Also in the prestigious cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Hurt, Jonny Lee Miller, Mark Strong, and Derek Jacobi.
- Swazi filmmaker Zola Maseko's 1950s-set Drum (2004), a little-seen drama based on the life of South African investigative journalist Henry Nxumalo of Drum magazine. The leads are portrayed by American actors: Taye Diggs is Nxumalo while Gabriel Mann is Drum photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. But for a change, Mandela is played by a South African performer, Lindani Nkosi.
Unpalatable 'fiery' young Mandela
Also worth noting, as Peter Bradshaw has just recently reported 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.”
January 2017 update: Directed by British filmmaker John Irvin from a screenplay by Athos Kyriakides and Malcolm Purkey, the 2016 South African political thriller Mandela's Gun traces Nelson Mandela's time as commander of the African National Congress' paramilitary wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (a.k.a. the MK).
South African TV and film actor Tumisho Masha (Drum, Catch a Fire) was cast as Mandela. Curiously, a couple of months prior to the film's release at the Joburg Film Festival, Masha was arrested after allegedly assaulting his estranged wife.
Nelson Mandela on television: Sidney Poitier & Danny Glover
The most notable television portrayal of Nelson Mandela was created by U.S. actor Sidney Poitier (Best Actor Academy Award winner for Lilies of the Field, 1963) in Joseph Sargent's 1997 TV movie Mandela and de Klerk, co-starring British actor Michael Caine as F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who freed Mandela. Tina Lifford was cast as Winnie Mandela, while Richard Wesley was credited for the teleplay.
In 1993, the (by then ex-)prisoner and – more controversially – the president shared a Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
When it comes to winning trophies, Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine were less lucky during the 1997–1998 awards season, though Caine was shortlisted for a Golden Globe, Poitier for a SAG Award, and both Poitier and Caine for the Emmys.
Ten years before Mandela and de Klerk – while Nelson Mandela was still languishing behind bars – American actor and eventual Emmy nominee Danny Glover played the South African political prisoner in another TV movie, concisely titled Mandela. London-born Philip Saville directed from a script by the Cape Town-born, London-based, Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, 2002; also nominated for The Dresser, 1983, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007).
Actor Nelson Mandela
And finally, as an actor himself, Nelson Mandela was featured in a small role as a Soweto teacher who, sounding just like a well-rehearsed politician, provides a lecture on human rights in Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X (1992), featuring Denzel Washington as the American political activist.
Mandela was also seen as himself in Jo Menell and Angus Gibson's Academy Award-nominated documentary feature Mandela, a.k.a. Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation.
See follow-up post:
Right-wingers & apartheid + Sunny Wayne's Nelson Mandela
 Ronald Reagan's pro-apartheid South Africa quote via Media Matters, in an article contrasting how U.S. right-wingers saw South Africa's racist political system back in the day and how they reacted to Nelson Mandela's recent death.
 The Nelson Mandela incarnated by Sunny Wayne in Srinath Rajendran's Malayalam action/crime drama Second Show (2012), is not the South African leader but an Indian thug/taxi driver/repo man.
Image of Idris Elba as South African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: The Weinstein Company.
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus: Warner Bros.
Image of Sidney Poitier as Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela and de Klerk: Sullivan Entertainment.
“Nelson Mandela Movies: South African Leader Reverentially Portrayed by U.S. & British Actors” last updated in July 2018.