Nelson Mandela: His Movie Legacy

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Former South African president and icon of freedom and forgiveness Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. While his world only occasionally intersected with that of the cinema, he left a lasting impression, and his fascinating, eventful life is one that filmmakers have attempted to chronicle more than once...

Only one filmmaker convinced Mandela to be anything but himself on camera: that was Spike Lee for Malcolm X. Mandela has a cameo as a Soweto teacher who recites some of the civil rights leader’s famous “By any means necessary” speech. Though crucially, he wouldn’t speak the final four words that gave the speech its name, worried that the then-government of South Africa would take it as a violent call to arms. Lee agreed to cut in archive footage of X himself saying the line, and Mandela got his sole acting credit.

His single acting credit aside, Mandela had a long list of film appearances, as documentary makers often included his moving speeches or simply footage of him in action. And, somewhat naturally, many filmmakers have sought to chronicle his life, or get him on camera talking about it. Some of the more famous examples of the latter include Nelson Mandela: Free At Last, Prisoners Of Hope and A Hero For All: Nelson Mandela’s Farewell. You can watch one example, Nelson Mandela: Life And Times, below (though make sure you have 80 minutes to spare).

Mandela visited the U.S. in 2002 and made an appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival, where he told New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg about how recalling his favourite movie scenes had helped him during his 20 years of incarceration. "The producers, directors and actors of films have in their hands a powerful and evocative tool for fostering understanding, and through that, tolerance in the world," Mandela later said in a speech. "It is furthermore a medium that is not bound in its reach. It can reach out to all strata and sectors of society and across national and linguistic boundaries."

As you’d expect given his dramatic life, his early struggles, prison term and incredible impact in later life, Mandela’s story is one that has been brought to the screen in biopics more than once. Actors have challenged themselves to mimic his particular speech patterns and personal grace through the years. Among the best are Sidney Poitier’s efforts in 1997 TV Movie Mandela And De Klerk, Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus in 2009 and, to a less successful extent, Dennis Haysbert in 2007’s Goodbye Bafana.

brightcove.createExperiences();Idris Elba is the latest actor shouldering the task of portraying the man known as Madiba, in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s own autobiography. The film had its Royal Premiere last night in London, and the audience was informed of Mandela’s death at the event. "What an honour it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world,” Elba said after the film. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family." Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is out here on January 3, and its release will hold added poignancy.