/ 8 December 2013

Nelson Mandela in the movies

Mandela film lead actor Idris Elba
Mandela film lead actor Idris Elba

In film, the role of the former ANC activist and president of South Africa has traditionally been approached with great reverence.

The voice. The gentle, mysterious smile. The walk – generally an older man's walk, across a garden, or presidential office, or prison exercise yard. The enigmatically polite manner: intimidating, even awe-inspiring for allies and adversaries alike. The list of actors who have tried all this is long: Morgan Freeman, David Harewood, Terrence Howard, Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier, Clarke Peters, Dennis Haysbert, Idris Elba – and Lindane Nkosi, the one South African actor who has managed to make some sort of impression as this character in Anglo-Hollywood circles, for a film called Drum, about the 1950s anti-apartheid campaign, that played at festivals in London and Cannes.

Nelson Mandela has been a role to be approached reverently, a difficult part and a career hurdle in some ways, like a royal figure in a Shakespearian play, a figure with fewer lines than the younger principals, but with richly poetic speeches – like the exiled Duke Senior in As You Like It. It is perhaps because Mandela himself entered the general conscience as a prisoner: someone who was able to impose his legend on the world in enforced and martyred inactivity. British film-maker Peter Kosminsky 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, although Idris Elba's performance in Justin Chadwick's Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom touches on the subject.

The stately Mandela of the cinema screen has been shaped by the man's status as a liberal icon of the 1980s and 1990s and also, I think, by two screen performances that have nothing to do with him: Ben Kingsley's Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's classic 1983 epic, and, at one further remove, Paul Scofield's Sir Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann's A Man For All Seasons (1966). These are saintly figures who have mastered the grubby political arts, but rise above them, figures who are in retreat for much of the time, but who can smilingly and even effortlessly best their enemies in debate – and who are themselves pretty wily. Perhaps without the actors fully realising it, their Mandela performances are influenced by Kingsley and Scofield.

The most famous screen Mandela is probably that of Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood's 2009 movie Invictus, which is not about his prison existence, but his first presidential term when, with inspired political nous, Mandela reached out to white South Africa by taking a passionate interest in the Springbok rugby team. In truth, it is a stately, inert movie. Freeman's own performance is detailed, well-observed, with the occasional twinkle-eyed touch of fun and in many ways a pleasure to watch, the end result of a long-nurtured actor's dream and indeed Freeman's own personal friendship with Mandela. But it is very statesmanlike – and statesmanlike does not make for very exciting cinema. It is also tied to the ancient rule of liberal Hollywood: it is acceptable to portray a black activist, as long as he is balanced with a sympathetic white character, in this case the rugby captain played by Matt Damon.

Exactly the same factors are in play in Mandela and De Klerk, a TV movie from 1997, featuring Sidney Poitier as Mandela and Michael Caine as FW De Klerk: the same understandable and heartfelt respect brought to the role of Mandela, which possibly has the unfortunate effect of cladding the figure in cotton wool, and the same liberal balancing act.

The respect/balance template is also followed in Bille August's Goodbye Bafana aka Colour of Freedom, the 2007 movie which features Dennis Haysbert as Mandela in prison, and striking up a relationship with his white guard, played by Joseph Fiennes. The film was based on the memoirs of the actual guard himself – and his close relationship with Mandela was disputed. But Haysbert is able to put a little more edge into his performance as Mandela, and it is rather more interestingly written.

Danny Glover's performance in the 1987 TV movie Mandela was looser-limbed than the ones we got used to later on. There is much more for an actor to get his teeth into, tackling Mandela's early firebrand life of political activism, and it is an honest, forthright, gutsy portrayal, but it it still doesn't capture the complexity of Mandela as a politician with a grownup grasp of when and when not to compromise.

Terrence Howard played the younger, fuller-faced and bearded Mandela in Winnie, the 2011 film starring Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela, which made the festival rounds without getting a release in the UK. The emphasis of the film was almost equally on Nelson and Winnie Mandela and critics were reportedly struck, as so often, by the careful and honest job of impersonation carried out by Howard – yet somehow it was felt to be lifeless, and lacking the gusto this actor brings to darker roles with less baggage.

Idris Elba came to the role perhaps knowing that he would be the last actor to portray Mandela in his lifetime. Based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, The Long Walk to Freedom gives us a sweeping overview of Mandela's struggles – personal and political. Elba is required to play Mandela from young lawyer, to ANC recruit to the elderly freedom fighter that walked out of Robben Island. It is a necessarily big performance – self-consciously hefty at times – but Elba has the great man's underlying sparkle.

For my money, the most interesting screen Mandela was one which was not the most exact impersonation. Clarke Peters, who was Det. Lester Freamon in The Wire, played Mandela in Endgame (2009), the story of the negotiations that preceded his release from prison, but here Mandela is not neatly paired with De Klerk; instead, this movie shows his tense, shrewd, eagle-eyed political dealings with a number of players, including ANC delegate Thabo Mbeki, played by Chiewetel Ejifor.

Not knowing the man himself, it is difficult to say whether it is accurate: but Peters's Mandela always struck me as the most believable portrayal of Mandela as the politician, long-game strategist, survivor and winner. –  Guardian News & Media 2013