It makes sense that when former South African president Nelson Mandela passed away Dec. 5 at 95, the upcoming film about his life, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” took on new urgency.
But the urgency wasn’t for reasons you might expect. There was no rush to move up release dates — it opens here on Christmas day — or to promote the film differently or more frequently.
“In terms of scheduling, we changed nothing. And his family urged us to continue as planned,” said director Justin Chadwick, whose prior credits include “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The First Grader.” Chadwick was with Mandela’s daughters in London for the British royal family’s screening of the film on the evening Mandela died.
“I remember asking Zindzi, his daughter, who was portrayed in the film, if we should stop the screening, because we learned about an hour into it that he had passed away. But she said no, he would want us to complete the task,” Chadwick said by phone. “Our plans for release dates and such were solidified last February. What gave the film a greater sense of importance was that we do Mr. Mandela justice in terms of making sure the message of the film wasn’t lost in the overwhelming — and completely understandable — amount of media coverage.”
Mandela, Chadwick said, had not been shy about frequently reminding filmmakers that they had to tell his story accurately, warts and all. So even though much of the movie concentrates on Mandela’s rise in the African National Congress, and his 27 years in prison after kangaroo court convictions over his opposition to apartheid, it also examines his philandering ways as a younger man and his strained relationship with Winnie Mandela, his wife then.
‘Our greater concern — the filmmaking team and Mandela’s as well — was to find an actor who could play Mandela from the inside out, rather than the outside in.’
“He contributed to the making of the film and weighed in. And that was what was most important to him,” Chadwick said. “It’s funny. There are times people think of more superficial things in movies as being most important, because it is a visual medium. But the message was so important to both Mandela and our team that it didn’t matter to us that our star didn’t really look like Mandela.”
That star is British actor Idris Elba, whose only physical commonality with Mandela is their close height: Mandela was 6 feet tall; Elba is a little more than 6 feet 2 inches.
“Our greater concern — the filmmaking team and Mandela’s as well — was to find an actor who could play Mandela from the inside out, rather than the outside in,” Chadwick said. “We wanted someone who could capture his character and spirit, and his manner, and that is why Idris was my first and only choice for the role. If done right, audiences would be drawn in by the story and the acting and the physical differences wouldn’t matter as much. . . . [Idris] is naturally and genuinely gentle and humble and commanding at the same time; whoever was to play this role needed all three of those elements.”
Elba, star of the BBC television drama “Luther” and perhaps best known for his role as Baltimore gangster Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s “The Wire,” was not available for comment, but his “Mandela” costar Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela), agreed that he was uniquely suited for the role.
“You’ve probably heard it before, but the key is Idris’s humility,” said Harris. “He was asked to portray a man who was a powerful world leader, but when faced with the choice to seek revenge or reconciliation, opted for the latter. And not everyone can project that sort of care and the weight of such decisions with ease.”
What wasn’t easy about making the film was her own role, Harris admitted in a telephone interview from Dubai, where she was taking a break from promoting the film to relax.
In one scene in “Mandela,” Winnie is beaten by a male interrogator and then sexually assaulted by a female prison guard during a 16-month stint in solitary confinement.
“It did take me quite a while to recover from the role because, like Idris, I wanted to fully possess the character of Winnie Mandela to play her,” Harris said. “And to possess her, to fully understand her motivations, is to explore her full range of emotions and motivations. Doing so took me to a very dark place in which I had to lower my guard and explore the depths of her anger and, in some cases, her hate.”
Though she doesn’t condone that hate, Harris said she now understands the root and source of Winnie Mandela’s highly publicized anger toward South Africa’s apartheid government and sometimes whites in general.
“Of course, I understand her anger,” Harris said. “Who wouldn’t feel anger in a setting in which they were born a third-class citizen simply because of the color of their skin? Apartheid was done away with a long time ago, but even I started to feel anger at times while making this film.”
For Anant Singh, who produced “Mandela,” the proof of just how effective the film’s messaging may be lies in audience reactions. He said those have been similar to his own reaction to meeting and getting to know Mandela, who was also known by his clan name, Madiba.
“I’ve known Madiba for many years now,” said Singh, in a phone interview from his office in Johannesburg. “As a young university student in South Africa, I became involved in the ANC and protesting and fighting against apartheid. Of course, I heard of Madiba then. He was already a legend. But my first communication with him was while he was in prison 25 years ago. It was written. I asked him for permission to make a movie about his life, his work, his fight. And I received a note back from him asking me ‘Why would anyone want to see a movie about my life?’ I finally met him two years after his release, and we became friends. He was so humble.”
Singh said that he has been struck by the commentary of people exiting screenings of “Mandela”: “Everyone has commented on his humility and what I feel is the thread of the entire film: the love story — sometimes tragic, to be sure — between he and his family throughout his imprisonment.”
And while Singh insists that he expected audiences to walk away from the film with new or greater respect for Mandela, two things pleasantly surprised him: “First, I have been amazed at how many e-mails I’ve received from white people who acknowledged that after watching the film they had newfound respect for Winnie and didn’t feel so harshly toward her, as many did over the years based on news reports. Second, I watched the racial demographics of screening audiences change.”
The audiences he observed were always racially mixed, Singh said, but they were largely nonwhite. Since Mandela’s death, the percentage of white attendees, especially in South Africa, has steadily increased to half.
“And what I feel most proud of, and I believe he would, too,” Singh said, “is that the reactions — people claiming inspiration from his life — have remained the same, even as the demographics of viewership have changed.”