Hollywood time for the Mandelas: The politics of representation

by Siphokazi Magadla and Bose Maposa.

Invictus is the latest Clint Eastwood movie coming out December 11, 2009. The movie is based on Nelson Mandela’s term as president at the dawn of the founding of the new democratic South Africa and his crusade to create a rainbow nation. Mandela’s quest for racial integration and human rights was first realized through the South African rugby team, the Springboks, which in 1995 triumphed as the World’s Rugby Champions. Named after the famous poem by William Ernest Henley, Invictus promises to recreate the historic scenes of post apartheid South Africa and the buildup to 1995, which for many South Africans, for the Africans that sacrificed so much to end Apartheid, and for the world at large, sent a clear message to the world saying: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” making true of Henley’s famous words.   Nelson Mandela is played by Hollywood icon Morgan Freeman, while the Springboks captain Francois Pienaar is played by Matt Damon. The trailer is chilling as one is reminded of yet another historic moment that is upon South Africa in the next 2010 FIFA World Cup-and once again, the country will be playing host.

Another Hollywood movie in the pipelines is about the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela ex-wife and for many South Africans, the Mother of the Nation. A BBC article reported on November 19 that Jennifer Hudson is to star as the powerful Winnie. Looking at Morgan Freeman attempting Mandela’s unique voice and imagining Jennifer Hudson as the strong, powerful and beautiful Winnie, one cannot help but wonder, does a story about Winnie and Nelson Mandela really need to be portrayed by famous Hollywood actors to gain the world’s attention? Is it necessary that such powerful African icons be represented by foreigners? Or aren’t Africa’s actors famous or saleable enough to play Winnie and Mandela?

The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 film based on Uganda’s Idi Amin saw Forest Whitaker win the highest honor of Best Actor in the Academy Awards of 2007 for his portrayal of the Ugandan dictator. A year before that however, Tsotsi the South African movie, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, a first time for an African movie. Tsotsi had a cast of internationally unknown actors, of which the lead actor was just as unfamiliar even in his native country South Africa. This is unlike Catch a Fire starring Academy Award winning actor Tim Robbins and Derek Luke in the life story of Patrick Chamusso. Although the movie was afforded critical acclaim, it nevertheless did not gain the same attention as Tsotsi. As well, when reflecting on the success of the 1992 hit movie Sarafina, one wonders why the movie producers who chose Morgan Freeman and Jenifer Hudson did not think of African actors. Are they not best suited to tell African stories? Despite the fact that Whoopi Goldberg played a significant role in the movie, it was Leleti Khumalo, a South African, who was the main actor. The same Leleti Khumalo who starred in the 2005 Oscar nominated film Yesterday.

The HBO TV series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on the best-selling novels by Alexander McCall Smith about Precious Ramotswe, the only female detective in Botswana, stars Jill Scott. Despite local (in Botswana) auditions to find the lead actor, it was reported that no local actress was suitable for the role, and thus Jill Scott was selected. It would be difficult to start to argue if the series was adopted by HBO because of Jill Scott or because it is a fair representation of the Tswana culture. And thus the unanswered questions include: is it the reputation of the actors or the message of the movie that makes it a hit? Should we even be bothered?

One cannot deny the publicity brought about by international actors, just as much as we cannot deny the pain felt by the local audiences when these actors butcher the local languages and accents (e.g Jill Scott and Morgan Freeman to name a few). Nonetheless, the ability of famous actors to gain a larger audience should not hinder us from a discussion about the implications of such endeavors. Indeed it is important to acknowledge that perhaps the role of international faces bringing attention to unknown stories catch the world off-guard to such an extent that there will be further interest in the stories coming from that country told by local artists.

While it cannot be denied that small independent movies (which usually have unknown actors as the main characters) often fail to make it big at the box office and realistically, making movies is all about making money, this should not denounce  the fact that international actors are not always needed to boost the sales of a movie. The stories of developing nations should not be left up to Hollywood to tell as Tsotsi and Slumdog Millionaire have clearly shown. Neither is it always necessary to have internationally acclaimed actors as the main actors. If the developing world is attempting a shift away from a Western type of development embedded in the dominant paradigm of the modernization theory that portrays cultures of the developing world as inferior to that of the West as it has been argued by some developing world scholars such as Columbia’s Escobar; we must certainly caution against the dominance of such paradigms in the arts.
Is it unreasonable to argue that the people of the world would still go to watch a movie about Gandhi played by a local Indian actor? So why wouldn’t we be confident that a South African actor should be given the chance to portray the world statesman Nelson Mandela? The Mandelas are gigantic African icons, known internationally, and thus their stories are sellable, regardless of who portrays them. We can even go as far as to argue that Nelson Mandela is much better known figure internationally than Morgan Freeman, much like Winnie Mandela is arguably more internationally known female icon than Jennifer Hudson.

9 Responses to Hollywood time for the Mandelas: The politics of representation

  1. this article tiptoes around much larger questions. what is the responsibility of those who make the movies to cast ethnic and racially appropriate actors to the role? whose feet do we hold to the fire for not portraying these roles in an appropriate light? in a way that is acceptable by the people and cultures whom these movies represent? and once we determine who is responsible for what, then how do we get proper portrayals of culture, nationalities, race, and individuals who are not 'western' who are being portrayed in 'western' films using 'western' money? This is a very blurry, murky, gray area. this is where the real issues exist.

    anyway, i think it is an extremely interesting choice to cast freeman as mandela. as an american, i find it offensive. but i can't speak as someone from the region, cuz well, i ain't from there. i think they could have even found someone of south african decent to play that part. hey maybe mandela is, i don't know…i don't think there was much casting for this role, i think he was offered this part. as for jennifer…um……..???? i don't even get it. also there are issues of who makes the films and what kind of actors can be used. usually only union actors can have certain parts depending on how films are produced.

  2. I'll make this as short as I possibly can. Two of the best performances I've seen in the last few years in a movie: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. Both foreign actors playing African characters impeccably (accents and all). Those two performances answered in my mind the question of whether foreign actors could successfully play African characters.

    The bigger question should be who's responsible for bringing to the fore such African stories. Tsotsi and Slumdog millionaire were for the most part indigenous productions and as such, the cast reflected that. When we leave our stories for Hollywood to tell, we can't complain about how they choose to tell it. If a South African production crew decided to make a movie about the Mandelas, I doubt they'd be casting Hollywood actors/actresses in their roles. And that I think, is the bigger issue at hand.

  3. I may be wrong but its my personal opinion that these movies were made for the money. If they are targeting the American market, which I think they are, Morgan Freeman is surely a perfect choice. Honestly, it is Hollywood exploiting the story of a great man using a great actor to make some good cash, thats it!

    While I agree with the authors of this article on the issues of culture and all that stuff, as an African I still feel we are not going to rely on Western movie companies to represent us. Hollywood will always make a movie in such a way that they can sell it to their target market. Unfortunately, the misrepresentation of the continent always sells in the West and that's their first target market.

    Finally, a big percentage of people will view it because its a Morgan Freeman movie. If its a good story, that's good for South Africa and Africa. I must say the Idi Amin movie really painted a bad picture of Africa…partly because it was done by a big name and thus it sold big-time shaping the perceptions of many a people.

  4. Thanks for the comments and for raising such important issues. It is obvious that only so much can be said in any article, and thus we really appreciate your input.

    In response to who is telling this story, I would just like to clarify that the director of the Winnie movie is Darrell J. Roodt, a South African; one of the script writers is also a South African-Andre Pieterse. This article http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118011521.html?categoryid=13&cs=1 reports that the movie is being made with ‘South African and Canadian money’. And we already know, Invictus is a Clint Eastwood movie. So it is not always ‘western money’ or ‘western film makers’ that tell these stories.

    It is a fact that movies are made for money; misrepresentation of the continent is not new to Hollywood, we all know that. And yes, it sells; a lot but like we already said, that does not take away from the fact that we need to have discussions about the implications of such. There are a lot of things that are done for money that we question everyday, so why not this?

    As for foreign actors playing impeccable characters of local people, I am not sure. I was impressed with the Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance in Blood Diamonds, but I don’t think I would go as far as saying he did a flawless accent, and I don’t believe he could do a better job than a native Zimbabwean. Whilst most people are impressed with Jill Scott’s Setswana, a lot of Batswana feel that she is butchering the language. I guess its just personal opinion.

    And for those who might be interested, please check out the discussion about District 9 at http://www.zeleza.com/symposium/949 .

  5. awesome well thought comments all! firstly to Maingi and Queen Kaye, i think you are right like the article states movies are there to make some good cash. Yet, I do not think that the fact that Western film producers have the financial ability to make these movies for particular audiences ends at that. To the contrary, I think because these stories hold such a sensitive place to the African audience, we ought to be fierce in voicing out our views about the framing of these movies. Movie makers must be held accountable of the work that they produce whether its a movie about Africa or any other part of the world. Like you mention the Amin movie, indeed as Talabi mentioned was acted well by Whitaker. Yet the omission of several facts in the movie was rather disturbing. For one, for a person who knows very little about Ugandan politics, that movie did not represent Ugandan people very well at all. I think movie producers must be questioned even more so when a movie is based on a real event such as Amin's rule. They should be able to draw quiet closely the line between fiction and reality, because too much fiction in this case, is dangerous for the image of a country. Indeed, one movie cannot represent all the diverse aspects of a country, but at the very least the makers of the movie must attempt to potray the one aspect as close to reality or truth as they possibly can. I seriously doubt that Americans would allow for an elimination of facts in movie about Obama for instance, why should Africans in the case of their history?

    Secondly, Bose mentioned Blood Diamond and Dicaprio's perfomance. We can draw on Denzel Washington's perfomance as well as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. As much as I like Denzel as an actor, I battled to get a feel of who Biko was beyond Washington's accent. Obviously the Mandelas must have agreed for these actors to play them, but that should not stop us from raising these important questions. When will African actors get their chance if even the stories of their icons are told by other people? When will African art get its chance? Bollywood has made its claim in the world such that they tell their stories. What about Africans? I will argue that until Africans claim their stories, we will always say its the bottom line that matters which is the money. Shouldn't the bottom line be not tell the story at all if telling it will contribute to the negative imagination that the world already has about Africa?

  6. Agreed. I feel the same way about films surrounding LGBT characters and how they are typically played by heterosexual characters (Brokeback Mountain, MILK, Boys Don't Cry, ect.) Great piece…

  7. A few thoughts. I'll use the last Kind of Scotland as an example. Idi Amin wasn't the nicest guy. Even with a totally historically accurate portrayal of his character he wasn't exactly a role model. If a Ugandan chose to make that movie would that be ok? if it was staring a Ugandan? Should the true story not be told because it is told by the wrong people or because it makes Idi Amin and thus Africans look bad? LKOS was based on true events and like other dramas thus titled, they take creative license so they can keep people entertained. This is not a personally affront to Africans.

    I think an even bigger issue is why are these movies (even documentaries like invisible children featuring African's, even movies like Yesterday which doesn't make people in the rural areas of south Africa look very nice), becoming people's SOLE understanding of Africa? It's like taking the movie Boyz in the Hood and saying that is what all of Black America is. This, mind you, a movie staring real life black people directed by black person. I feel that the problem is that this microcosm of life becomes representative of a continent (or a people). You should be able to talk about a dictator (unless you disagree that he was one) unapologetically without people saying that all African's are like Idi Amin. Just like you should be able to make movies like Malcolm X, or

    Perhaps getting more Africans to make films is the answer. Then they can then flood the market with a more diverse set of perspectives. If you told a filmmaker you don't like his work, the person will probably tell you not to watch it. If you are offended by the LKOS I'm sure the director would remind you that it is liberally fictionalized. Then we're back to Queen Kaye's questions.

    The question of misrepresentations of Africa is important. But does having a black person that speaks a different language from a different ethnic group automatically count as misrepresentation? Would it be better if a Tswana or a Kenyan played him? If a Kenyan played Obama would that be wrong? Is it ok that Chiwetel Ejiofor played Thabo Mbeki in Endgame, or that Sophie Okonedo played a Rwandan woman when she (and Ejiofor) are both Britons of Nigerian descent?

    I can't imagine that Morgan Freeman is going to make Mandela look bad. I agree that African actors need jobs too, but I'm not convinced that this in and of itself is justification to write off big name actors. Morgan Freeman is a first class actor (of which not too many exist anywhere in the world IMO), which is what Mandela deserves. If his name was Morgan Madiba born and raised in the US would that make him more valid? My question I guess is why NOT Freeman? I'm sure there are even some in South Africa who are fine with him playing to role…like the Mandelas… are they wrong?

    I think Morgan is playing Mandela because he bought the film rights to the movie. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Keller-t.html which I imagine is how many such things happen.

  8. Great article. You’ve raised some big issues within the arts industry and even bigger ones concerning our society.

    As Maingi has said, and everyone seems to agree, Hollywood is in this for the money, they are marketing a product to a targeted audience. Its about business, its about the money. However you raise the point that even in such Hollywood films the main actors ought to be more representative of where they’re filming. Point taken. I agree. However this ideal doesn’t fit well in a capitalist/consumer driven industry. Ideals vs. Capitalism. That’s a tuff fight. Ideally it would be great to see an all African cast in Hollywood movies about Africa, but in all reality I don’t think Hollywood is willing to do that!

    As a part time actor in Kenya, I know for certain the talent is there. The question for me is raised not about the availability of quality local actors but of the willingness of Hollywood and other foreign companies to work with "local talent". I have seen first hand their discrimination when it comes to hiring and paying “local talent”. In a German film I was in there were four tiers of payment, though we all did the same work. The highest paid were the actors from Germany, the second were white people from Kenya, the third were Indians in Kenya, and the lowest paid were black Kenyans. Once this was found out many, including myself, left the production.

    As for us telling our own stories there are many people doing it across Africa! The industry is still young though, we certainly haven’t had the same amount of time to develop it as Hollywood has. (and sadly, as in Kenya, the government has in the past tried to control much of the arts industry, thus crippling the growth and talent of many gifted people and groups). Whether its Nollywood in Nigeria or River Road Productions in Kenya, the industry is growing. Yes the beginnings have been humble, and some of the productions very poorly done, but it is a foundation. We have something to build on! And I know in Kenya it is happening.

    A great example is the Coca-cola “brrrr” advert. This was written by a Kenyan, Bukeko (a famous local TV star), he is also the main actor in the commercial, the big man at the beginning. This advert campaign was written in Kenya, filmed in South Africa, and has been used all across Africa, and most of the world. We have the talent to do big things we just need more people doing it!

    The film industry is a growing one throughout Africa. I believe we will continue to see great movies coming from all over the continent. There are amazing stories to tell. And as more and more people find their voices and the finances to produce such films these productions will build upon themselves. This is what is happening. Sadly it is a slow process. But it is happening.

  9. The question I see Kazi and Bose asking in their piece and everyone commenting on above relates to issues that arose in today's African Studies brown bag: representation. Who can "authentically" re-present whom? Who has the right? Who chooses what stories are worth telling and how? And ultimately who has the funds and resources to pull it off? How would African research and cinema look through an African lens? Who is considered an insider or outsider?
    Late Senegalese film super-director Ousmane Sembene struggled throughout his career with these questions and the fact that his films, so deeply rooted in the politics and culture of his people, were rarely viewed by the very people he was re-presenting to the outside world. Although some of this can be attributed to issues of distribution and copyright, we must more closely examine the type of films that are widely dispersed and viewed in homes and movie clubs across the continent. I have seen some interesting papers and critiques about the themes and portrayal of women and “traditional” life in Nollywood, which considering the distribution rate needs to be addressed.
    These are all important questions that must be asked and should be challenged.

Leave a reply