Who will play the definitive Mandela?

Authorised biography of Nelson Mandela starring Idris Elba and Skyfall's Naomie Harris is frontrunner

Actors Danny Glover, David Harewood, Morgan Freeman, Dennis Haysbert, Clarke Peters and Sidney Poitier have all attempted to play South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, in the past. But arguably no one has yet produced the definitive version of his life on screen.

Idris Elba/Nelson Mandela/Terrence Howard (Credit: Rex Features)

As South Africans pray for Mandela, hospitalised with a recurring lung infection, the race is on. The big-budget adaptation of Mandela's bestselling autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom', starring Idris Elba, best known for 'The Wire' and 'Luther', and Bond girl, Naomie Harris ('Skyfall'), could  go head-to-head at the box office with 'Winnie', featuring Jennifer Hudson as Mandela's wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Terrence Howard as Mandela.


The casting of foreigners has been controversial in South Africa and accents will be under close scrutiny in the latest films, reports 'The Guardian' newspaper. The films cover much of the same historical territory from different perspectives, but 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' is the most expensive South African movie ever made, whereas 'Winnie' is being released two years late after numerous setbacks.

Both come at a time that – with Mandela spending in a serious but stable condition in a Pretoria hospital – South Africa and the world are coming to terms with his mortality and taking stock of his life and achievements.


'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom', directed by Britain's Justin Chadwick ('The Other Boleyn Girl'), is in post-production and due for release in South Africa on 29 November. The script was written by William Nicholson, whose credits include 'Gladiator' and 'Les Misérables'.

The film spans 1924 to 1994, with two other actors playing Mandela at ages eight and 16. His prison on Robben Island was reconstructed in minute detail at a studio in Cape Town. Producer Videovision has offered to donate the sets to the Mandela museum in Qunu and other heritage sites.

The picture was made in consultation with the Mandela family and his foundation. Producer Anant Singh, who has been working on the project for 17 years, said: "I was thrilled that when Madiba [Mandela's clan name] looked at some of images of Idris Elba in the trademark Madiba shirt, he asked the question, 'Is that me?'. This recognition and affirmation from Madiba is extremely satisfying and makes our journey worthwhile."

"The casting of Idris Elba was a piece of genius," a cast member said. "He doesn't look like Mandela at all but they didn't want a Mandela lookalike."

A British prosthetics team worked on Elba so he could portray Mandela over a period of 30 to 40 years, the actor added. "I like what Idris did with it. I was moved by him. He was very focused and I admired his concentration. Hats off to him."

As for Mandela's unmistakeable voice, the cast member said of Elba: "He worked on the sound very hard and on the gait very hard and I was totally bowled over by it. Without doubt it will be the best portrayal of him there has ever been. I don't think there can be another Mandela movie after this. You could feel the weight of it."

'Winnie', meanwhile, has been  criticised by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and got such negative reviews at a 2011 film festival that it was withdrawn for a major overhaul. It is expected to reach cinemas later this year.

Its director, Darrell Roodt, told South Africa's 'Mail & Guardian' newspaper recently: "It got emasculated in the editing process because it was trying to be honest. I think the producer just got nervous. There were just too many things in it that would offend too many people. It breaks your heart. You get judged even before you make the movie. I hadn't even begun shooting it and I was condemned."

'Winnie' star, Harris, who has seen the 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' script, said: "It does go into some of the difficult spaces but it is 'Long Walk to Freedom', authorised by Mr Mandela personally, and with authorised versions there are limitations of the robustness of the interpretation."

The 'Long Walk to Freedom' trailer was warmly received at last month's Cannes film festival. "This is not your dad's HBO 'Mandela' film," said US distributor Harvey Weinstein. "This is the kick-ass Mandela."