How To Get Away With Playing Mandela

These 5 actors played Nelson Mandela in a movie in recent times... but did they nail it?

13/11/2017 11:21 SAST | Updated 13/11/2017 11:27 SAST
Discovery Channel

Let's all agree that playing the role of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in a film is a seriously tough job to pull off. As an actor, you carry with you the weight of what the global political icon stood for; his immovable commitment to the struggle for freedom (at even the cost of his family); and what this meant for South Africa as a country - and the world at large. Some actors who have played the role of Mandela (and there have been MANY) have carried that weight well and some, well... barely got away with it.

Here we have a look at some of the actors who really stood out as play-play Madiba, especially if we look at a combination of acting skill and preparation (in order to really embody the spirit of the political figure). And the nominees for the Best Portrayal of Madiba are....

Laurence Fishburne

He's top of mind for being the last actor to play Mandela in the Discovery Channel six-part series, Madiba, so he gets to go first before the Huff Post panel of judges.

Earlier this year, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor, Fishburne told ABC News that he spent two weeks in South Africa before shooting, meeting with people who worked closely with Mandela (including Ahmed Kathrada and Zelda le Grange), to prepare for the leading role.

"I was fine when I agreed to play the character and then about 15 minutes later, I panicked... But I played Thurgood Marshall just before that and that character prepared me for this role," he said.

No one can fault him for an outstanding performance. He so obviously put his entire might behind the acting of the role and did a really decent job of getting into character – an experience he called 'life-changing'.

Idris Elba

This multi-award-winning actor's response when asked by his agent if he'd play Mandela is classic. In an interview, Elba recalls how he put the phone down on his agent first, and then called back and said: "Can I be honest? If it's a grey-haired version of the fist-pumping Mandela, I'm not the actor to bring in. I'm not Morgan (Freeman), go with Morgan."

Long story short, Elba ended up playing Mandela in the 2013 biopic, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – and he wasn't just a grey-haired fist-pumper. He went on to research what firebrand Mandela was about and played a younger Mandela too.

He is an exceptional actor with a great presence on screen. However, the jury is still out on whether he nailed the Xhosa, and more importantly, the Mandela accent – a seemingly tough exploit for all the foreign tongues that attempt it.

Yonda Thomas

One of a handful of South African actors who have been 'afforded' the opportunity to be cast as Mandela, Yonda Thomas, can be seen in Madiba.

In an interview with Channel 24, Thomas said that he understood the tough job at hand but took up the challenge by changing his voice to suit that of Madiba's; as well as reading up more on Mandela's life in his younger years – particularly 'The Long Walk to Freedom'.

Thomas did such a good job of playing young Mandela, that he got some industry accolades. This role could just be one of the things that catapults his growth in the industry.

Tumisho Masha

Speaking of preparing for the role of young Madiba, Tumisho Masha went out of his way to not only capture what a Mandela accent sounds like (especially a young, militant higher-pitched sounding Mandela) for his role in Mandela's Gun. He said that he also had to put on 10 kgs within a month and then get fit, to more accurately show Mandela's journey to becoming an MK commander.

Above the elbow-grease, Masha also put in a lot of reading time (to get a sense of what Madiba's mental and emotional state could have been) and watched rare footage of the young, firebrand, rebel-with-a-cause version of Mandela. He recalls how he had a lot of pressure to prove how, as a South African actor (the only one so far to play Madiba in a leading role) he was more than 'good enough'.

Says Masha: "I also prayed a lot, every morning to be granted with the spirit of Madiba as I played the character."

He adds that the role also made him more socially and politically aware after playing the character over a 3-year shooting period (the longest he's had to stay in character for a film).

Morgan Freeman

Freeman played Mandela in 2009 film, Invictus – the grey-haired, fist-pumping version of Mandela. In fact, Freeman did such a sterling job of playing Tata Madiba, that when Mandela died in 2013, he (Freeman) ended up on an Indian poster paying tribute to Mandela by mistake (a legendary blunder).

In Invictus, Freeman plays alongside Matt Damon who acts as Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar. In an interview with Jason Von Berg, Freeman said that he met with Madiba to observe him up close, as well as watching videos of how he interacts with people and talked. He admits that he struggled with the pronunciation of Mandela's middle name, Rolihlahla (cringe-worthy stuff) and that he was concerned about the accent. "My one desire going into this role was not to offend South Africans... I don't do accents as a rule so I was concerned about this, but a number of people said I nailed it...," he said, unconvinced.

You can judge for yourself. Watch Madiba, the 6-part mini-series that covers the life of Nelson Mandela on Discovery Channel - Mondays at 21:00.