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From Morgan Freeman to Idris Elba, Who Played Mandela Best?


Well, British actor Idris Elba is being praised by critics for his performance as Mandela in "Long Walk to Freedom," but as we mentioned earlier, he's not the first actor to try. There was Morgan Freeman in "Invictus," the 2009 film about South Africa's rugby team. Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier have also taken turns at playing Mandela. We were curious about the differences that each actor brought to the role so we decided to call Sean Jacobs. He's a professor at The New School in New York and founder of the blog "Africa is a Country," which is, of course, meant ironically - correct, professor?

SEAN JACOBS: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Just to be sure. So let's start by asking what you think is the most important thing for an actor who takes on the role of Nelson Mandela?

JACOBS: I think that there's a difference between imitation and embodying Mandela. So if an actor looks like Mandela but can't embody the - sort of the figure, you know, the way he is as a politician, as a person - that is more important than whether he looks like Mandela. So, for example, Morgan Freeman doesn't look like Mandela at all, but to most people, almost in a sense, Mandela became Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman acted like a statesman in the film. Even if you have issues with the actual narrative of the film or the story, but as an actor, Morgan Freeman embodied him.

MARTIN: Well, let's play a short clip from that film. Here it is. This is a scene from his first day in office as president of South Africa. Here it is.


MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Nelson Mandela) If you are picking up because you fear that your language or the color of your skin or who you worked for before disqualifies you from working here, I am here to tell you, have no such fear. The past is the past. We look to the future now. We need your help.

MARTIN: You know what's funny to me? Is that a lot of people really appreciated Morgan Freeman's role in this film, but his actual accent, in my mind, is not perfect.


MARTIN: If that makes sense to you. Yeah. And so what is it about it you think people are reacting to?

JACOBS: So in that clip, you can hear that kind of like hesitant style that Mandela spoke. Among the other hand, Morgan Freeman, I think, I suppose he just decided look, I'm not going to sound like a South African. There are times in that film he just becomes Morgan Freeman and he speaks with an American accent. And people were fine with that. I think it's when you have actors trying to play a South African and they have almost sort of fake Nigerian accent - that's when it becomes a problem I think.

MARTIN: Here's Sidney Poitier. He played opposite Michael Caine in "Mandela and de Klerk." That was a 1997 made-for-television movie about the relationship between Mandela and the former South African president who was in power when he was - when Mandela was released. Let's hear a clip of the two of them.


SIDNEY POITIER: (As Nelson Mandela) For more than 300 years you have been dominated by blacks. You've simply never acknowledged that.

MICHAEL CAINE: (As F.W. de Klerk) You and I are both going to have to be willing to make some compromises if we want to set the ground rules. We need to begin negotiations.

POITIER: (As Nelson Mandela) Mr. President, I don't mean to flatter you when I say that I sense an integrity here that has not distinguished many of your predecessors. So I agree.

MARTIN: So once again, the accent not quite perfect. But speaking of integrity, Sidney Poitier, one of the things he's known for is a certain integrity that he has himself. Do you think that he brought that to the role?

JACOBS: Well, with Sidney Poitier - Mandela actually met Poitier during the making of this film and he remarked that Sidney Poitier was a freedom fighter and a great actor. And I think he sees some of these kind of politics in Sidney Poitier. You know, someone who has to make himself acceptable in a situation where people don't want him. He has to appeal to an audience that didn't like him, you know, when Sidney Poitier came out in the late '50s - the early '60s. And in this film, Mandela also gets to be angry. It's a very short period in the time before he came out of prison. But you do get a sense of a, you know, the full Mandela.

MARTIN: So drumroll, what's your response to Idris Elba as Mandela?

JACOBS: I mean, from what I've seen, I think he gets - he tries to get or he gets the accent. Secondly, I think as a young Mandela - the charisma, the...

MARTIN: The physicality. The sense of physical strength.

JACOBS: The physicality of it - he gets that right.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things, though, that the film captures, which I think you've spoken about yourself is that he initially was not, kind of, the focus of the movement. He was never - it was never Mandela and everybody else. But at a certain point, he did become - he did kind of rise above and become the focus of international attention.

JACOBS: Yeah I think the ANC understood by the late 1970s the importance of sort of personality driven politics. That you have to focus in on one figure to simplify for people who, you know, couldn't make sense of either the ANC's ideological politics because they would always debate whether the ANC was Communists or whether they were liberals. So to simplify it, the focus became on this one man. He was mysterious. No one had seen him since 1964. Internationally, you had people who'd never cared about South Africa, you know, starting to latch onto it. And he became part of, sort of, a whole (unintelligible) of nationalist black leaders globally - like Malcolm X., Martin Luther King - and I remember when I first arrived in the United States in mid-'90s there was a popular T-shirt that said something like - Martin, Malcolm, Mandela and me it's a black thing you wouldn't understand.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you know I have to ask because you're South African yourself, does it sting at all - do you have any - or do other South Africans have any feelings about the fact that so many of the prominent actors who have taken on this role are not themselves South African - including Idris Elba.

JACOBS: I mean, there are disadvantages and advantages to that. I think it's disingenuous when the producer of the "Long Walk to Freedom" said that he did not pick a South African actor because they're too short. He should of been honest and said, look, it's about box office, I'm trying to make money off this film so I'm going to hire the actor that can best get people - you know, people into seats. Few people know that the very first portrayal of Mandela on film was by a South African. It was a South African actor called Simon Sabela who played Mandela in 1966.

Out of the six most prominent bio, you know, films on Mandela, five of them were written by South Africans. It always ends up that an American actor plays him. But I don't have a problem with that as long as they can embody - they're all acting as - you know, it's not Mandela, it's an actor playing Mandela. And if they can play it well, then that's fine with me.

MARTIN: Sean Jacobs is a professor at The New School in New York. He's founder of the blog "Africa is a Country." We just want to remind you that it isn't. And he was kind enough to join us from our NPR bureau in New York. Professor Jacobs, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And just as there have been a number of films about Nelson Mandela, many songs have been inspired by him. So we thought we'd go out on this one. That's "Asimbonanga" from Johnny Clegg and Savuka. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASIMBONANAGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.