Filmmaker Darrell Roodt’s decision to cast Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela resulted in flaring tempers, the hurling of insults, charges of xenophobia and a call for the review of South Africa’s labour laws. Hudson has been cast as Madikizela-Mandela in a R100-million movie, directed by Roodt, out next year.
Madikizela-Mandela is one of the country’s most revered struggle icons—warts, scars and all. If the movie about her life is to make it in other climes (read Hollywood), it’s fair to assume only a world-acclaimed actor can play her.
Several local actors could naturally inhabit the character of Madikizela-Mandela. But, sadly, none has the allure and status that qualify Hudson for the role. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actress in Dreamgirls and boasts a Grammy for her self-titled debut album.
But according to veteran actor John Kani, politically sensitive roles should be played only by locals. Kani was quoted this week saying: “Every time there is a movie that tells a South African story, it is done by someone who must be taught the right way of pronouncing sawubona. Enough is enough.”
In a telephone interview with the Mail & Guardian, Kani said he wasn’t opposed to the casting of Hudson. “Hudson is welcome. She’s an Oscar winner,” he admitted. “She’ll create a lot of work for local actors and will make it easier for South African stories to spill over into overseas markets,” he said.
His gripe, he said, was that the Creative Workers’ Union of South Africa was not consulted. “Do the producers recognise that there’s a union which they have to consult to explain the economics of the whole project? We object to their pretending that we don’t exist.”
Roodt’s project will start shooting next May and is expected to be finished late next year. The movie is based on Winnie Mandela: A Life, a biography by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob.
Kani wondered whether non-South Africans can faithfully tell South African stories. Representation, I think they call it at university. It’s a legitimate concern.
Invictus, featuring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, opens this week. Skin, starring British actress Sophie Okonedo as the young, dark-skinned Afrikaner Sandra Laing, who made headlines decades ago when she was reclassified coloured, opens early next year. At the rate at which South African movies featuring overseas stars are coming out, it seems there will be yet another round of imprecations.
Okonedo played the part of Madikizela-Mandela in the BBC4 drama, Mrs Mandela, shot in Soweto last year. David Harewood, who previously appeared in the South African-located Blood Diamond, played Nelson Mandela and the production was written and directed by top British television director Michael Samuels of the Diverse production house.
“Will Winnie be a villain or heroine?” Kani asked regarding the new look at Madikizela-Mandela. “It’s sensitive to us whether the story will reflect the positives of people we hold dear. The people who had resources pre-1994 are exploiting the situation by telling our story now. They want to make a movie about Winnie, which they wouldn’t have done [back then] because Winnie was evil. Suddenly they have a great story to tell.”
When the M&G asked Kani who he would prefer in the Winnie role, he was coy. It was a director’s prerogative, he began, before mentioning veteran actor Leleti Khumalo and Nthati Moshesh, who plays a lead in the e.tv soapie Scandal.
In an interview with the M&G, Roodt, director of up to 25 films, including Sarafina (which starred Whoopi Goldberg alongside Leleti Khumalo), expressed “disappointment” and “sadness” at the fracas.
He said the incident was “xenophobic”, going against South Africa’s “generosity of spirit”.
Quizzed on the contents of the movie, Roodt said the film is going to be “epic”, exploring the various facets of Madikizela-Mandela’s life: “It will look, hopefully in an even-handed way, at the good, the bad and the beautiful. Hers has been an extraordinary life,” he said, referring to her fraud conviction and her alleged role in the death of activist Stompie Seipei.
Roodt defended his choice of Hudson; if it were a lower budget movie he wouldn’t have hesitated casting a local star, he said. He cited the movie Yesterday, for which he cast Khumalo in the lead role. “When the budget gets to R100-million, I can’t afford to take risks,” he said.
Roodt said this project, partly funded by the department of trade and industry and the Industrial Development Corporation, was bankrolled mostly with “high-risk money”.
He said: “Some of these people say they are fighting for the rights of local actors, but if the film isn’t made [it] would cost about 150 actors these jobs.”
Jacques Stoltz, senior marketing manager at the Gauteng Film Commission, said: “There are no formal regulations” governing the making of movies in South Africa at present. If a project is fully financed from abroad then there is less control regarding the percentages of crew and cast used on that production.
Stoltz pointed out that on international productions a significant number of South Africans are used as cast and crew, meaning that local costs are temptingly lower than Hollywood rates.
The present tussle over the Madikizela-Mandela story seems not to take into account the true nature of the matriarch’s eventful life. Given the complexity of her character and back story, there will always be something left for future filmmakers to show.