Why are Black Americans Playing Roles Meant for Africans?

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

“Invictus,” a film about Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unify post-apartheid South Africa through rugby, opens Dec. 11. The film stars Matt Damon as captain of South Africa’s 1995 rugby team and Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

I’ve little interest in seeing this film, but the commercials for it caught my attention when I noticed someone attempting what I considered to be an atrocious South African accent. That someone was Freeman, an amazing actor, no doubt, but not convincing to me as a South African. A quick trip to the IMDB.com thread on the film, and I realized I wasn’t alone in my criticism of Freeman.

A thread devoted specifically to Freeman’s accent in the film began:

“HOLY CRAP…. Morgan’s accent sucks!! Not even close…. did he even try? Didnt hear to much of Matt but wow Morgan really missed the boat.”

And another poster followed up, “I came here to say the exact same thing after having just seen the commercial. Holy horrible. It sounds like Morgan Freeman in every movie he’s ever been in plus a hokey accent that couldn’t possibly be attributed to any ethnicity or area.”

After pondering how Freeman speaks in the film, I wondered why a South African wasn’t cast in “Invictus.” With Clint Eastwood as director and Damon in a starring role, would it have been that much of a gamble to cast an unknown in the role of Mandela? Then, I thought about other films set in Africa—“Hotel Rwanda,” “Cry Freedom,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Sarafina!” All feature black Americans in starring roles as Africans. A recent exception would be 2006’s “Blood Diamond” in which Djimon Hounsou has a starring role.

I understand that casting African American film stars likely makes movies about Africa more marketable, but would African Americans be as accepting if roles designed for them were given to whites to increase a film’s marketability? Judging from the uproar surrounding Angelina Jolie starring as Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart,” I think not. So why aren’t more people speaking up about the tendency of African roles to go to black Americans?

On IMDB.com, a poster who challenged the assertion that Freeman was born to play Mandela, arguing instead that an “actual South African” be given the role, received this response:

“There isn’t any South African actors that have Freeman’s acting skills though. Just because someone is from a particular country doesn’t make them automatically better for the role.”

I don’t know the ethnicity or nationality of the person who wrote this, but the idea that South Africa has no quality actors is ludicrous. But, say, we take the poster at his word. South Africa having no actors with the chops to play Mandela shouldn’t rule out the possibility of an actor from another African nation playing the role. Nigeria, for one, has a $250 million film industry, which puts it in the Top 3 film industries in the world, along with India and the United States. Clearly, Africa has its share of actors to go around. So, when will Hollywood shine the spotlight on them, and when will black Americans demand it?