Long walk to the box office

The film of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom is finally going into production.

But Anant Singh’s production house Videovision still cannot confirm that rising Afro-British star Idris Elba has been cast to play the former president in the film version of his autobiography.

Despite Elba sharing his good news with entertainment site Hip Hollywood, Videovision doesn’t want to talk until Elba has signed on the dotted line. Word is they hope to have his signature by the end of next week.

However, their casting agent, Moonyeenn Lee, says almost all of the film’s other roles will be played by local actors – including the role of Mandela at the ages of seven and 16 as well as the actress who will play Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

News of the latest Mandela casting broke in an interview with a clearly proud Elba, fresh from a best actor win at the Golden Globes.

The star of The Wire and Luther upstaged the feature he was promoting – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – to spill the beans about his “big project this year”.

After several years in development, Elba has propelled Long Walk to Freedom back into the spotlight ahead of several other Mandela projects expected in the next few years.

It has also revived the debate about Mandela once again not being played by a South African actor.

A slew of international stars have played him including Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman and Terrence Howard.

David Harewood will feature in the BBC drama Mrs Mandela. Only two South African-born actors have played him: Simon Sabela in a German TV docudrama and Lindani Nkosi in Drum.

“I was free to cast a South African and I auditioned some extraordinary local actors,” says Lee, “But the main problem is the height. Mandela is a particularly tall man. On average, South African actors are not 1.9m.”

The other issue she says she faced was the lack of suitable homegrown actors aged 40 or older.

“The younger actors have had a chance to go and study and learn and work with internationals. The older actors, growing up during apartheid, had to deal with the cultural boycott, very few roles on television and almost none in film. There simply aren’t enough actors to choose from.”

But Mabutho Kid Sithole, president of the Creative Workers Union of SA, at the forefront of protests against the casting of Jennifer Hudson in the role of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Winnie, is not happy.

“We are not impressed. So no one is tall enough? There’s always some reason to avoid using South African actors and having other people tell our stories. They use these stars for commercial reasons and the problem is South African business is not funding our own films,” he said.

“Meanwhile South African actors are good enough for the other roles. We see this happen over and over. Tomorrow there will be a film about Walter Sisulu and then what? No one is short enough?

“You tell me now, how will this actor pronounce Qunu where Mandela was born or Rolihlahla, his real name?”

Lee discovered local actors, Tsotsi stars Presley Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto, and 15-year-old Khomotso Manyaka, who was named one of Time magazine’s top 10 best performers of 2011 for Life Above All.

She worked with Elba on the TV series The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and believes he can pull off the finest Mandela yet.

“When Idris walks into a room, there’s not one person who doesn’t look at him. He’s just got the aura.”

British-born Elba, the son of a Sierra Leonean father and a Ghanaian mother, impressed Singh with his portrayal of a Rwandan army captain in Raoul Peck’s Sometimes in April, based on the genocide of 1994.

He will be seen in Ridley Scott’s horror-thriller Prometheus and Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi epic Pacific Rim before we get to judge how well he fills Madiba’s shoes.
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