Archie Bland: The tall task for South Africans wanting Mandela role

FreeView from the editors at i

Share

There are a lot of characteristics that seem important to our conception of Nelson Mandela. Patience. Wisdom. Fortitude. Being South African.  

One that doesn't make that list is his height. Yes, Mandela is a big guy – 6ft 4in, to be precise. But he is also the defining figure of the late 20th century, one of the few world figures who properly merits the term hero. When you think of Mandela's defining qualities, his height is way down the list. His South African-ness, on the other hand, once we get past the superhuman stuff, is pretty intrinsic.

Moonyeenn Lee, the casting director for an adaptation of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, sees things a little differently. Lee auditioned some South African actors for the part, but in the end he went for Idris Elba, the British-born star of Luther and The Wire. The South Africans were "extraordinary", he explained at the weekend, but in the end they were just too little. Only Elba had the requisite stature. And so the part was his. The decision adds Elba's name to a list of luminaries – Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover, and Morgan Freeman among them – who've had the honour. But as yet, the part has not been played by a South African.

I did briefly entertain Lee's argument. I wondered if a South African man of 5ft 7in would be utterly implausible as a South African man of 6ft 4in. Then I remembered that Elba is covered in muscles, rather unlike the slight-framed Mandela. I also thought of Ben Kingsley's turn in Gandhi, and Cate Blanchett's Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, and the human-sized Ian McKellen's ability to portray an eight-foot bloody wizard in The Lord of the Rings, and I concluded: perhaps – perhaps – Lee isn't telling the whole truth. Perhaps he made a more cynical calculation.

Such complaints will inevitably be dismissed as carping by some. They might point out that Meryl Streep was an almost universally popular Thatcher, that Blanchett's Elizabeth I was just as uncontroversial. But neither Thatcher nor Elizabeth quite defines Britain's sense of itself in the way Mandela does South Africa's. And it must be admitted that whereas myriad Brits have played both those roles, an unbroken string of at least eight prominent foreigners playing Mandela without a South African getting a look-in seems too much to be a coincidence.

The sad fact is: you can understand Mr Lee's real dilemma, distasteful as his excuse might be. He wants people to come to the movie. He knows they respond to a star. But Elba is hardly an A-lister; what will sell the film to the audience is Mandela's extraordinary story. What a shame his fellow countrymen have once again been excluded from telling it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

NVQ Assessor Level 2 & 3 Sport Development

£19200 - £26880 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: In NVQ Ass...

Secondary supply teachers required in Newmarket

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh  

Scottish independence: Forget Yes and No — what about a United Kingdom of Independent States?

Ben Judah
Francois Hollande at the Paris summit on Iraq with ministers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on 15 September  

What's going to happen in Syria and Iraq? A guide to the new anti-Isis coalition's global strategy

Jonathan Russell
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week