Idris Elba is Hollywood’s Troublemaker

by Shane Thomas

There are few names as globally recognisable as Nelson Mandela. And likely even fewer whose name generally invokes strong feelings of warmth and goodwill.

Mandela was recently in the news as a result of his ill health, with elements of the online world and news networks partaking in an emetic game of “Nelson Mandela death watch”. Mercifully, at the time of writing,  Madiba is still with us, and he has become a talking point again by proxy, due to the release of the trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.


The aforementioned is a movie biopic, traversing Nelson Mandela’s life. Early indications suggest that it is being positioned as strong contender for the 2014 Academy Awards. If the release date of January 3rd next year isn’t a sign to this effect, then the fact that the film’s production company is The Weinstein Company certainly is.[1]

On face value, this would seem to be a positive sign for diversity in Hollywood. After all, it’s a film where black characters are front and centre, without – as Jamilah King succinctly put it – needing a “white co-pilot”. And if you don’t think that this is an issue, more often than not, when films are made about communities of colour, the proviso is that a white character is a key cast member.[2]

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Fail to make this concession, and you can end up like Danny Glover, for whom it took years to get his biopic of Toussaint Louverture (a man who did more to end slavery than Abraham Lincoln or William Wilberforce ever did) made, because the movie “lacks white heroes”. So while there are positives from a film being made about a black icon, there are also problematic areas with this movie.

The initial press reaction to the release of the trailer has been pretty positive. I’m sure that Harvey Weinstein has already been fitted for his tux in preparation for the 2014 Oscars, and early talk suggests that Idris Elba should do the same. And yes, the thought of Elba and Naomie Harris (who plays Winnie Mandela) getting award recognition is heartening for those who’ve longed to see talented actors of colour in more prominent positions in the entertainment industry. But Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an African story, more specifically a South African story. So where are all the South Africans?

idris-elba-nelson-mandela-300x444First, full disclosure. I’m not the first person to notice this. This piece was initially inspired by tweets from Kola Boof and Trudy Hamilton. There is also plenty on this on Tumblr blogs such as Dynamic Africa’. It can be forgotten that black westerners – while battling against issues of race – have levels of privilege over black people around the globe.

The excuse given for the casting of an English actor as Mandela – albeit one of African descent – was that there were a lack of actors who were a similar height to the 6ft 4ins Madiba. When a casting agent gives such a weak justification, one thinks it would have been wiser to have said nothing. And even if that was the case, what’s the explanation for casting Naomie Harris (also English) as Winnie? Or for Jennifer Hudson playing her in Winnie (set for release later this year). Looking at actors who have portrayed the Mandelas in recent film/television history, they tend to be either American or British, rather than African.

I surmise that the true reasoning is the studio wants to cast actors that they feel give the movie the best chance of earning money and winning awards. So co-opting another country’s culture seems to be an afterthought, assuming it was given any thought at all. It has an undertone of the worst kind of western paternalism; we can’t expect those poor Africans to be able to tell their own history. Leave it to us industrialised nations to come and save the day[3]. The ‘Our Africa’ Tumblr has a fine riposte to that received wisdom.

mandela-long-walkAnd while Elba and Harris will garner most of the attention, it’s telling that the director and writer of the film are both white English men. It seems that the movie is African in location only.

To be clear, I’m not writing the film off at this stage. I’ll probably go and see it, primarily because I think highly of both Elba and Harris as actors. Also, I’m not ignoring that a mainly black cast in a mainstream Hollywood movie is a big deal. But you don’t automatically get to be on the right side of social progress simply because you “sent for the blacks”.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom may end up being a wonderful work of art. But how respectful is it to the legacy of the man that the story is ostensibly honouring?

Nelson Mandela is a legendary African. So it’s a pity that African people weren’t given a fair chance to tell his story.

[1] – The Weinstein Company’s co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein has turned Oscar season from a self-congratulatory affair into a campaign that rivals some political elections. Weinstein spends money attempting to win awards for his movies, the way that Roman Abramovich spent money to ensure that Chelsea won the Champions League.

[2] – Examples of this are as follows; Dangerous Minds, Django Unchained, Glory, The Last Samurai, Avatar, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas.

[3] – Because the history between Africa and the West is such an auspicious one… right?

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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