Rumours are circulating on various Hollywood gossip and film blogs that Stringer Bell also known as Idris Elba — the East London boy made good in Hollywood — is next in line to play Nelson Mandela. Surfing on the mammoth success of his character in The Wire, his relatively popular series Luther on the BBC (but so shocked were we that he actually has an English accent it was difficult to concentrate on the rest), a brief role in Thor and the excited buzz (and fear) of Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien prequel Prometheus, Elba is rumored to be the chosen one for an ‘official biopic’ of Mandela’s life. If the rumors are true, our beloved Stringer, the towering be-tracksuited crime underboss turned businessman will join a line of famous black actors who have attempted to incarnate the great Mandela. But do they incarnate, or impersonate? Lets have a look at their efforts.
First, Danny Glover in a made-for-TV film titled Mandela. This film was made in 1987, in the 25th year of Mandela’s imprisonment. It covers the years 1948-1987, charting Mandela’s rise from young lawyer to national icon. I can’t find a trailer, but here’s a faded production still of Glover and Alfre Woodard who played Winnie. Any American readers old enough to have seen the TV film?
Next up, Oscar-winner Sydney Poitier in a 1997 TV film titled ‘Mandela and de Klerk‘. Michael Cain, playing the last Apartheid president FW de Klerk puts in a good effort, but ultimately retains much of his “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”-patter. He’s a sort of cockney-cum-Afrikaner de Klerk. Poitier portrays Mandela’s serene confidence and quiet power, and to be fair, looks a bit like him too. Also, his accent is passable, a rarity in films made about South Africa. (Some mainstream US critics, take the The New York Times for example, liked Poitier’s performance especially.) Here‘s a link to the trailer. And below is the poster:
Next, TV actor Dennis Haysbert (more remembered for his roles in films like Waiting to Exhale or cop shows) does ‘action-hero Mandela’-pumped muscles and lots of explosions in the forgettable Goodbye Bafana (2007), which was more about Mandela’s white prison guard:
And then to Morgan Freeman, perhaps the most celebrated Mandela actor, who played him in Invictus (2009), the huge Hollywood feature with Matt Damon as captain of the Springboks, described by Sean as a “film in which Matt Damon saves South Africa and gets whites absolved for Apartheid by winning a rugby match.”
If you can get past Freeman’s American accent, he does do quite a good job at incarnating Mandela. Bill Keller in The Guardian argued that Freeman successfully channels Mandela’s ‘manipulative charm’, his ‘force of purpose’, his ‘mischief’ and his ‘lonely regret’. In fact, at a press conference in 1994, promoting his memoir A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela was asked by the press who should play him on film, and he said Morgan Freeman. This royal stamp of approval gave Freeman access to Mandela whenever they were in the same city, a rare privilege as Mandela grows older.
From Hustle and Flow to Winnie (2011), where Terrence Howard plays a distinctly American Mandela, with Jennifer Hudson as Winnie, both with awkward, confused accents.
There’s also BBC4’s not-strictly-Hollywood one-off drama, “Mrs Mandela” starring Sophie Okonedo. The smaller role of Nelson Mandela was played by fellow Brit actor David Harewood.
It seems, with the addition of Elba to this line-up, the recent Mandela’s of Hollywood have become bigger, more muscular — in short, somewhat blunt instruments with which Hollywood seeks to address the history of South Africa. Let’s wait and see how Stringer Bell does.