Why do Hollywood stars play leads in South African stories?

Idris Elba was the actor who portrayed former Nelson Mandela in the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. South African actors were not tall enough to play the role, the movie's casting agent Moonyeenn Lee said.

Idris Elba was the actor who portrayed former Nelson Mandela in the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. South African actors were not tall enough to play the role, the movie's casting agent Moonyeenn Lee said.

Johannesburg and Cape Town are becoming the preferred locations for filmmakers to shoot international productions. Earlier this year Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron production team closed off parts of the Johannesburg city centre to shoot scenes for the Hollywood blockbuster. And The Giver, released last month, starring Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, and Jeff Bridges was filmed in the Mother City.

Also shot in Cape Town: City of Violence (Zulu), adapted from the crime novel Zulu by French author Caryl Férey, and opening at cinemas this weekend.

The film, which tells the story of two policemen, Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker) and Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom) who investigate deaths in Cape Town related to a new deadly, illegal drug on the township and suburban streets, is a South African narrative, played by international actors once again.

Both characters find destructive coping mechanisms to help them deal with their circumstances and the severe violence that they are exposed to in their profession.
City of Violence zooms in on the violence and drug business in Cape Town, and also addresses the scars of South Africa’s dark past.

A part of the country’s history is told through the life-story of Whitaker’s character, who according to French director Jérôme Salle “has forgiven his previous oppressors in his mind but not in his heart”.

The film’s director says Whitaker and Bloom are the only international actors in the film. The rest of the cast are South African. “I tried to make the right balance by having just two international leads,” Salle tells the Mail & Guardian.

Foreign leads draw bigger audiences
When the Nelson Mandela Biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was released in November 2013, its casting agent Moonyeenn Lee was criticised for casting international leads and overlooking the country’s selection of talent. British actor Idris Elba, who is renowned for his role in the series The Wire and cop series Luther, was cast as the lead in the biopic.

Lee told City Press at the time that she had the option of casting a South African to portray Mandela, but none of the actors were tall enough to step into the shoes of the late former president. The required height was 1.93 metres. “Mandela was a particularly tall man. On average, South African actors are not 1.9m,” she told the newspaper. The Winnie Mandela role was played by British actress Naomie Harris.

Elba and Harris joined a lengthy list of international actors who have portrayed African-born-and-raised individuals, including Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Placing South African actors at the forefront of storytelling on an international level is not enough of a drawcard. When a movie (based on a South African citizen) is made and is played by a non-South African actor, the question that often arises from film practitioners and audiences alike is: why are local actors not cast in leading roles?

But in an industry like film and television that contributes approximately R3.5-billion a year to the South African economy, according to a 2013 study conducted by the National Film and Video Foundation, money trumps patriotism. Salle says he is aware of the grievances of South Africans regarding international filmmakers who don’t cast local actors.

“I think South Africans have to understand that we have to release this movie all over the world. So it helps to have Hollywood leads,” says Salle. “I think it’s a good deal, because the Hollywood leads will also help the South African industry to develop and learn by working with people like Forest or Orlando.”

Local supporting actors in the film include Conrad Kemp, Brendon Daniels, Joëlle Kayembe, Tanya van Graan and Khulu Skenjana. Local production company Lobster Tree was part of the team that worked on City of Violence.

Trade-off
According to Adrian Galley, vice-chairperson of the South African Guild of Actors, local actors and crews are managing to get more work because of the international films, but it’s a “trade-off” that Galley thinks needs to be reassessed.

The danger local actors should be aware of is the exploitation by international filmmakers. Galley doesn’t think local actors have the bargaining power they need and are thus open to exploitation. Producers try to get more for less by offering minimum scale rate payment.

“As an actor I’m happy to have work, but of course I would be happier if the work I do becomes prominent. But how do you do that in South Africa? John Kani is one of South Africa’s best-known names internationally, and he can command big fees. Other big South African names, such as Charlize Theron, appear to have no interest in making South African stories,” says Galley.

Stories must have universal appeal
Local film Tsotsi (2005), under the directorship of Gavin Hood, opened a window to the possibilities available for the South African film industry. Tsotsi won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006 and was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006 with local talent, Presley Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto taking centre stage as lead actors.

A story of a young thug (Chweneyagae) from the Alexandra township, which was conveyed by an actor who is not a Hollywood A-lister, still managed to grab the attention of foreign film lovers. An achievement like this is a benchmark for local filmmakers and the Tsotsi cast and crew proved that this is a dream within reach.

Salle, who directed films such as Anthony Zimmer and The Burma Conspiracy, has nothing but good things to say about the South African film industry. “I think you have great actors and film crews; the problem is money,” he says. Salle believes the South African film market is small and still needs to be developed and nurtured.

“If you want to make great movies you have to be able to sell the movies. You need to make South African movies that don’t just talk to South African people. If you want to get the money to make interesting movie[s], you have to be able to sell the story all over the world.”

A South African story that will soon be told on an international stage, is the thriller iNumber Number, which was written and directed by Donovan Marsh and stars S’dumo Mtshali and Presley Chweneyagae. Universal Pictures bought the rights to remake the film.

The local film was released countrywide in April this year. Marsh told Timeslive that they had three big studios bidding for the rights, but they sold the rights to Universal. The movie will be adapted by the United States audience and will have a cast of international actors.

iNumber Number is a universal story and according to Salle the way forward for the South African film industry is being able to tell universal stories that will help inject money back into our film industry.

It all boils down to compromise. Local actors might have to step out of the main spotlight or share the spotlight in order for the South African film industry to grow.

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi is the Mail & Guardian's arts, culture and entertainment content producer. She started her career in magazines, before joining the Mail & Guardian team in 2014. She is an entertainer at heart. Read more from Katlego Mkhwanazi

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