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Film The problem with depicting the life of Nelson Mandela on film

British actor Idris Elba was the surprising choice for the heroic title role in the $35-million biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which premiered at TIFF.

There's perhaps some small irony in the fact that South African schoolchildren are going to learn about their own nation's history from the man who played Baltimore drug lord Stringer Bell in The Wire.

British actor Idris Elba, whose most famous role was the coolly businesslike crime boss in the HBO series, was the surprising choice for the heroic title role in the $35-million biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. The film, the most expensive ever produced by a South African film company, will be released commercially in North American cities in November. Back here in South Africa, the Nelson Mandela Foundation is planning to make it the focus of an ambitious educational campaign with screenings for schoolchildren.

Not everyone, however, is pleased by the film's simplified version of the anti-apartheid movement. Academic critics have accused it of omitting key figures in the liberation struggle. Others are unhappy that South Africa's most famous icon is being played, once again, by a foreigner. Elba is just the latest in a long line of foreign stars who have been cast as Mandela – from Morgan Freeman and Terrence Howard in recent films to Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier in the TV films of the 1980s and 1990s.

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As well, Mandela's ex-wife Winnie was played by U.S. actress Jennifer Hudson in another recent biopic, and by British actress Naomie Harris in the new film. South African actors and union leaders have hotly protested the casting of foreigners in these roles, complaining that the country's most important stories shouldn't be told by "imports."

At a press launch for the movie in Johannesburg this week, veteran South African producer Anant Singh went to great lengths to prove his credentials to tell the Mandela story. He held the launch at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, with the blessing of the centre and its historians.

When local media questioned him about his decision to cast a British actor in the leading role, Singh insisted that Elba was "the perfect choice" to play Mandela and gave a "phenomenal" performance – despite his lack of physical resemblance to the anti-apartheid leader, who remains in critical condition under intense medical care at his Johannesburg home.

The foundation, meanwhile, announced plans to take the film into communities in South Africa so that young people can learn about Mandela's role in the struggle for democracy. Some might think this is already well-known , but Singh disagrees. "Everyone's forgotten it," he says. "Nobody knows the real stories, nobody knows the detail. We're so caught up in the moment that we've forgotten about the legacy and the history."

Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Mandela Centre, said the film is the first by a producer who was personally endorsed by Mandela, and the first in which the centre was directly involved in the script. The casting of foreign actors, he said, is not a "major concern."

There was one moment that gave pause to the historians at the Mandela Centre. A key scene shows the arrest of Mandela in 1962 – the beginning of his 27 years of imprisonment – but it depicts him being arrested alone in his car, even though in reality he was accompanied by a white comrade, theatre director Cecil Williams, who was posing as his boss. The historians queried the decision to omit Williams from the film, and were told that the flow of the film required him to be left out.

More controversial, perhaps, was the decision to include Mandela's human flaws – his womanizing, for example, and his physical abuse of his first wife, Evelyn. But it was crucial to portray him honestly, including his weaknesses, Singh and Hatang say.

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The academic critique, on the other hand, could be harsh. An early analysis by two scholars, published on a blog called Africa is a Country, attacks the film for portraying Mandela as a "one-dimensional messiah" while ignoring the role of his comrades and the "struggling masses." The film is "the art of historical erasure," the scholars wrote.

Hatang disagrees with the criticism and praised the "authenticity" of the film. "Realistically, there's only so much you can do," he says. "Otherwise you must have a 10-hour film."

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