was still in a South African prison in 1989 when film producer Anant
Singh sent word that he wanted to do a movie about his life. The
political prisoner's response through an intermediary summed up
Mandela's modest outlook.
"(Mandela) didn't feel that something
about him should be made," Singh recalls. "He said, 'Will anyone want to
see a movie about my life?' "
The answer to that question was a
resounding "yes." Mandela, who died Thursday in his native country at
age 95, has been portrayed by icons from Morgan Freeman (2009's Invictus) to Sidney Poitier (Showtime's Mandela and de Klerk from
1997). But the 95-year-old international hero, who spent 27 years in
prison before becoming president of South Africa, gets his most profound
screen treatment with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The biopic, starring Idris Elba
in the title role and Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie, opened wide
Nov. 29 after making the rounds of film festivals this fall.
REVIEW: 'Long Walk to Freedom' doesn't do Mandela's journey justice
VIDEO: Idris Elba inspired by Nelson Mandela
STORY: Idris Elba takes a 'Long Walk' to success
though Mandela eventually supported the project, it took Singh and a
team of filmmakers more than 19 years to bring it to screens worldwide.
"It's been well worth the wait," Singh says. "It's made the film better that we have gone through as much as we have."
a third generation South African of Indian descent, Singh was
classified as "non-white" in the country's apartheid system of racial
segregation and was part of the struggle against it. In 1986, he
produced the anti-apartheid film Place of Weeping (now called A Place for Weeping) for $10,000 "while on the run from police and the authorities." The political musical Sarafina! would follow in 1992 and Cry, the Beloved Country in 1995.
was an important thing for Mr. Mandela to have been aware of my journey
in South Africa and having grown up in apartheid," says Singh, 57. "My
work as a young activist making anti-apartheid movies is where it all
The producer found himself at a surprise meeting with
Mandela just two weeks after the leader was released from prison in
1990, and the two started a friendship. When Mandela was working on his
autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he showed Singh the early
manuscripts. In the bidding war for movie rights that followed the
book's publication in 1994, Mandela awarded them to Singh.
was fierce competition from major studios," Singh says. "But Mr. Mandela
was very generous, and he wanted a South African to do it. He chose me.
As a South African, the honor of having the rights is one thing. But
with it comes huge responsibility."
Singh approached the task
cautiously, from securing the $25 million to make the film and maintain
creative control, to finding the right actors and screenplay. Mandela's
long, event-filled life easily could have been a miniseries of 10 to 12
hours in Singh's eyes.
"We went through 50 drafts of screenplays, several writers, several directors," he says.
Through the wait, Mandela maintained a hands-off stand toward the film.
said to me when he granted me the film rights, 'I trust you. Don't
bother me,' " Singh says. "In all of this time, he has never given me
any pressure. It was never like, 'You have to do it by this time.' It
was all about, 'Do it when you feel it's right.' He was very patient."
one of Nelson's six children, recalls that there sometimes were unasked
questions as the years went by. But Singh was like a trusted family
"There was a logic that if my father trusted him with this
story, then we should just be patient and wait," she says. "There is
the philosophy that things don't necessarily happen in my time. But
everything happens in God's time. Anant Singh was not in a rush for
box-office success. This was a mission of love for him and a commitment
to South African history, particularly my father's."
eyed to play the title role changed. In the early days, Singh floated
the idea of Poitier. Mandela's humble response "was that (Poitier) was
such a big star.''
In later years, Freeman was discussed. But when the team was finally assembled with director Justin Chadwick,
the screenplay by William Nicholson extensively covered Mandela as a
young man. English-born Elba, 41, had the right age and demeanor to
carry off the role, while Harris, 37, was brought in as Winnie Mandela.
The physical similarities between the actors and their real-life counterparts were not exact, but that was no concern.
were not looking to do a look-alike version of the Mandela story. That
wasn't important, that we have the same nose and eyes," Harris says.
"It's about getting the essence, because what people will connect with
is the emotional truth of the character. Have you really captured the
spirit, heart and soul?"
For Harris, the chore was additionally
tough since Winnie is such a polarizing figure whose story arc travels
from innocent young woman to embittered revolutionary at odds with her
husband. (They divorced after Nelson was released from prison.)
wanted to give her a fair hearing - up to this point, she hasn't really
had it," Harris says. "People want to make her into Mother Africa and
sanctify her, or they want to demonize her. And we are all much more
complex than that."
Chadwick, who did a year of research before
starting preproduction, believed that telling the love saga of Winnie
and Nelson was the "key that unlocked" the central story. Also key was
showing Mandela as a very charming womanizer in his early years, rather
than a sanitized version of his history.
"To see him flawed and
the mistakes he made as a young man, that felt important," Chadwick
says. "That was part of this extraordinary story."
A year ago,
Singh played unedited film clips for Mandela from his personal computer.
When Elba appeared as the older version of Mandela, the real statesman
cracked a smile.
"He looked at me and said, 'Is that me?' " Singh recalls. "It was that sense of humor he has."
of his health issues, Mandela had not seen the completed film at the
time of his death. Singh is convinced, though, that his subject "was
happy with what I have created with a great team of people."
Zindzi Mandela calls it "an authentic depiction of both of my parents."
just makes him that much more human and less iconic," she says. "For
such a long time, he wanted to be seen as an ordinary man who may have
achieved extraordinary things."
Especially compelling for Harris
was the November premiere in South Africa. It was far quieter than the
world premiere at September's Toronto Film Festival, where the movie received a rousing standing ovation.
South Africa, there was compete silence," Harris says. "I thought they
were not enjoying it. But afterward, I realized Winnie (Mandela) was in
tears and a niece from the Mandela family was sobbing into my arms. I
realized they were processing it in such a deep and profound level.
Because for them, it's not just a period of history. This is their lives
being represented on-screen."