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.