Short, black and sidelined

22 March 2012 - 02:25 By ANDILE NDLOVU

Their lack of global fame, not height, prevented local actors being cast as former president Nelson Mandela in the film adaptation of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Former president Nelson Mandela. File photo.
Former president Nelson Mandela. File photo.
Image: Simon Mathebula

Industry insiders have disputed casting agent Moonyeenn Lee's assertion that South African actors were not tall enough to play the 1.93m Mandela.

British actor Idris Elba - who stars in detective crime series The Wire - will be the latest foreign actor to portray Mandela.

But people in the local film industry said yesterday that height was not the primary reason the 1.88m Elba had landed the part.

A local producer who has worked on international projects and did not want to be named said: "When you put a star in a movie there is value already associated with their name in various territories globally. The sad part is there are very few black actors the international marketplace will back."

Films that unexpectedly rose to global prominence with relatively unknown casts, such as Oscar-winning Tsotsi, did so because of success on festival circuits first.

"It's really about the business side of it . We would all love a South African in the lead, but you have to look at who is doing the investment and whether they want a guarantee of their money back," he said.

Clint Eastwood's Invictus - in which Morgan Freeman played Mandela and Matt Damon played Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar - grossed more than $122-million, after it was made on a budget of only $50-million.

International company Pathe has secured the distribution rights to Long Walk to Freedom in the UK and France and will handle sales globally. The film is to be produced by South African Anant Singh and Brit David Thompson.

Stage and TV veteran Sello Maake Ka-Ncube said it was up to local businesses to back productions financially in order for stories of local heroes to be told by local actors - the way South Africans want them told.

"I've been a strong proponent against having foreigners play [our local heroes]. But our country is also not taking the initiative and now we find people from outside putting money to make these films, and it's like the dollar rules.

"Money speaks and everybody wants a return on investment. The time has come to stop whingeing. We have millionaires and billionaires in this country, but people from outside are owning our stories."

Long Walk to Freedom will be directed by Englishman Justin Chadwick