#BlackHistoryMonth

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]

img-danny-glover_135749258536

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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13 replies »

  1. What do you think of this: The film is the way it is, indeed all films are the way they are, because of the audience, or perception thereof. I agree it would have been better and more worthy if the Mandela was told using South African actors and directed and produced by Black or South African people. But I would suggest that, in the context of a Hollywood or western film, it would that be detrimental to the artistic and social impact of the film, to say nothing of the financial implications.

    This film, as well as Invictus a few years ago, were made for white western audiences. You could say the stories are being appropriated, or you could say the stories of a different culture and society are being told to a vastly different one. (South) African stories are just as interesting and valuable as any other, but if you are telling them to Americans, or Brits or any other primarily white westerners, you would actually undermine the value and appeal if you cast actors with no connection to the cultures to whom they are being told.

    Seeing as Hollywood films are financial in nature first and artistic a distant second, it seems to me that the telling of this story is surprising in its own right. The casting decisions are, I would imagine, the best possible result of the inevitable compromise that is a hollywood film.

    Don’t misunderstand me; I see and agree with all the issues stated, but don’t forget why and for whom this film is being made. I suppose it depends what you think is more important: the message, or the medium. As long as the story remains true to the source, this film can be seen as a (probably small) triumph for diversity in Hollywood. There is a rich and extensive history of stories from different parts of the world being altered for a different audience, based on the value of the message and the need for it to be heard.

    • To answer your question: I think the message is more important. While I’m glad to see this story told – even though the jury remains out as we haven’t seen the finished product yet – I think you are correct when you say that the movie was made for white, western audiences. And that’s a problem.

      It’s a problem to tailor oneself – or one’s art – for the benefit of white people (this is an issue that goes way beyond movies). It says that the film doesn’t count as legitimate until white people give it their seal of approval. I agree that the movie will probably do decent business, but if white people really want to know about history beyond their own, they should make the effort to do so, rather than the inverse.

  2. Nice article, you pointed out many valid points about the lack of Africans that I had not thought of. However I think it comes down to the Hollywood movie industry, They are entrenched in there ways and will not change for anything. Similarly with the movie ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun’ being released this year about the Biafran War, they had to choose western black Hollywood actors. This crass believe in ‘star-power’ and the patronising attitude they often take to there audience has more to do with these things than anything I believe

  3. To use an old cliché, ‘its called show-business’ not show-art’ Whilst Elba is undoubtedly a great actor, the reason that he has been cast is because he is a ‘bankable’ star right now. And as for Naomi Harris, wasn’t she in the last Bond movie as the new Moneypenny? There was a similar debate in the UK in the 90’s when they brought in an African American actor to play a Black British soldier. But surely this is not as bad as Johnny Depp putting on make-up to play a Native American? For now lets just be glad there are some Black actors up on the screen, and this story is being told.

    • As I mentioned towards the end of the piece, placing black actors front & centre in a mainstream Hollywood is something we can be pleased about. However, that doesn’t buy one “credit in the bank” to make the Euro-centric dominance of an African story irrelevant.

      Yes, I agree that Elba’s been cast because he’s viewed as bankable. But then, I’m sure that’s why Depp was cast as Tonto; because he’s viewed as more bankable than any actor of Native American descent.

      And while I don’t think that Elba playing Mandela is as egregious as Depp appropriating a Native American, that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. I’d also be wary of saying that we should be satisfied that black actors are on the screen without any critique. After all, ‘The Help’ had black actors on the screen, but that wasn’t something that I was happy with (for the record, that’s to do with the film, not the actors).

  4. Reblogged this on Unquiet and commented:
    Great article.

    I’m disturbed by how starkly reading this highlighted my own lack of sensitivity to this kind of appropriation. It would probably not have occurred to me to question the casting of British actors, though if I’d known the director and producer were White, that would have prompted me to start asking questions. I am wondering how far White Americans/Brits are from the assumption that Elba and Harris are as ‘African’ as Mandela himself.

    I felt a similar discomfort reading the earlier piece “You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl” – I had a little awareness of colourism as an issue for Black women and the misogyny they experience, but I began to see that my idea of Blackness was and even is shockingly undifferentiated, built on a colonial ‘them and us’ paradigm, inherently racist. While this is related to my awareness of injustice & oppression, I feel I still have work to do to break down the residual essentialist sense of race as a natural category in my own thinking.

    This goes along with reversing the mindset that makes the act of appropriating a South African story to assuage White guilt, fill pockets and graciously accept laurels feel so natural and just. It is not. We White people must decolonise our minds.

    • Indeed. We all have continuous work to do to stop our respective social privileges harming who we are as people, as subsequently doing harm to the world we live in. As I said in the piece, Kola Boof and Trudy Hamilton deserve a huge amount of credit, as it was their Twitter discussion that was the catalyst (which was partly assisted by blogs from Africa, which have been brilliant on deconstructing the issue). Without it, I would likely have also overlooked the problematic areas with the Mandela biopic.

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