Idris Elba is Hollywood’s Troublemaker

by Guest Contributor Shane Thomas, originally published at Media Diversity UK

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]

Danny Glover. Image via source post.
Danny Glover. Image via source post.

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?

Mandela promo poster via source post.
Mandela promo poster via source post.

First, 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 promo poster via the source post.
Mandela promo poster via the source post.

And 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?

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  • rank_tyro

    Suppose someone says “This is a worthwhile story. It should be told. I tell stories. I want to tell it.” (choosing yourself over other people is a call, and I bet it’s made all the time–especially by a director a screenwriter, since it’s not their job to find a different director or screenwriter for the project.

    Then they say “This story I want to tell is African. How true to Africa can I be and still get a wide audience (black and white people alike)? Can I get actors who are popular in the major markets where the movie will be sold and who are very good at telling stories?”

    I honestly believe that if this production went with Southern African actors that looked the part, acted to break your heart, and were just generally closed to the experience than Idris or Naomie is, most of America will skim the trailer, shrug, and a couple will read the cast list, shrug again, and buy a ticket for Transformers 17. Or maybe Invictus, at least partially cast at Nelson’s request.

    When you look at the Southern African cast, someone will notice that “Nelson” is a great and powerful actor who looks uncannily like the man himself when you adjust the makeup and lighting, but he’s not Tembu, he’s actually not even fucking Xhosa, do all those Americans think we’re interchangeable? (My SNL skit version of the casting involves Djimon Hounsou in a loincloth).

    What is the best position? Accurate, DEAD accurate casting for a movie no one sees, not even enough for awards? Casting more accurate than now, but inaccurate enough to anger some people who are maybe less important to the people complaining here than they themselves?

    What is the biggest priority, and where are the lines?

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  • Shane

    I’d be content with that. Because part of the (likely) problem, is that if the film is successful – which I expect it will be – it’ll be seen as some as a historical document, rather than artistic interpretation. E.g. It’s not uncommon for schools to use biopics of historical figures in their teachings.

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    He just doesn’t look like Mandela.

  • method

    This is a ridiculous stance. White actors don’t hold themselves to this standard, which is basically the equivalent of saying that a white American can’t play an Irish character, not even an Irish American. Do you *want* black actors to get work?

    • Shane

      I can only echo the reply from Juan Miller below. And casting someone from Africa to play one or both of Nelson & Winnie Mandela would still be giving black actors work.

      • method

        What I meant is that black actors can’t afford to ask for “permission” to take on each role, given the limited roles out there. Idris Elba’s breakout role was as a Baltimore drug dealer. A lot of people didn’t even realize he was British until much later. Was that a horrible appropriation of African American culture? Should he have preemptively avoided that role? Elba is on the path to being an A-list actor, but he’s also at risk of being pigeon-holed for certain roles: sci-fi movies (nerds love him) and roles where he’s gruff but noble, like Luther. This is clearly an attempt to expand his perceived range and maybe bid for an Oscar. The way every white actor does without people sniping at them.

        • Shane

          I never said that Elba or Harris need the consent of others. I don’t really have much issue with either of them. Unless you’re a big star, I empathise with the lot of any actor, who generally needs to take work where they can.

          However, your case only works if you believe that 1) cinema exists in a bubble, and has no effect on wider culture, and 2) that Africa and the West are on an equal footing.

          A basic knowledge of African history demonstrates that’s not the case, hence the problematic areas of appropriation.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      Actually white folks will complain in a minute whether a white actor isn’t properly representing a particular aspect of white culture—read IMDB comments on that subject, for example. They’ll raise plenty of hell about that in a minute. Hell, even British posters (on IMDB and everywhere else online) will complain and throw a fit over certain Brit actors sounding too “posh” or not working-class enough, or sounding like they’re from this part of Britain when they’re not. Some white actors might not hold themselves to that standard, but their fans sure as hell do.

  • Guest

    This argument is ridiculous. White people play people from every white ethnic subgrouping and (much to people on this site’s consternation) other Caucasian groups (Arab, white Hispanic, Indian, etc.).

    • Juan Miller

      That’s probably because the construction of whiteness in America erases all ethnic histories in favor of lumping all “whites” into one homogenous group, so they can be contrasted against all “non-whites”. Do you think that is okay and something other peoples should aspire to imitate?

      • method

        This comment is actually a first version of the comment I wrote above. I tried to delete it but I guess something went wrong. I think the vast category of “white” is pretty silly, but I also think the attempt to police the edges of whiteness and say a white actor can’t play an Hispanic or Arab character, etc. is also silly although I can understand it a bit more on the grounds that it’s harder to get away from the baggage of colonialism and white racism when a white actor plays those roles. But the idea that only an Italian American can play an Italian American, only a Scottish person can play Macbeth, etc. is just making up rules that only exist in the minds of self-appointed cultural policemen.

        Acting is about inhabiting the skins of people who are different from you, including from different cultures. Is it going to be a perfect representation? No, but a movie made for a predominantly non-South-African audience is necessarily going to be a translation. Idris Elba presumably isn’t going to speak Xhosa and Afrikaans in the movie either.

  • ☠ ☠ ☠

    Its still not as bad as Gandhi played by a white actor Ben Kingsley.

    • Ellington

      Ben Kingsley is actually half Indian and white and his birth name is actually Krishna Pandit Bhanji.

  • Bernardo

    Also, this has got to be *the* most awkward attempt at a South African accent. Even surpasses Jill Scott butchering MMa Ramotswe’s “African” accent.

    And by the way, Hollywood has a long history of American black actors playing Mandela (and failing at the accent, with the possible exception of the great Sidney Poitier), cf. this blog post:

  • sharoncullars

    Personally I’m tired of others co-opting the rightful (and I do mean rightful) birthright of a people. In this case, an African story being told by others, including Americans/Britains. But in the past few years, I’ve seen projects about blacks in general being co-opted (at least where the writing and production is concerned) by whites and I don’t understand why we are handing off our jewels. From the biopic on Nina Simone to the story about the Lovings to even the true story of the maid behind The Help. When Spike Lee did his biopic about Malcolm X, there were original murmurings about Sidney Lumet directing (IIRC), which would have been the height of irony.

    So, in many ways, even when there’s no white “co-pilot” depicted, you best believe there is a non-black at the helm somewhere. I do respect George Lucas trying to show the stories behind the Tuskegee Airmen but I resent that it was necessary for him to be the one to bring it to the screens.

    Overall, I don’t believe in restrictions based so much on race, but the culture should be considered. Jennifer Hudson in my opinion should not be playing Winnie Mandela (and it’s interesting that Jill Scott was chosen to portray a female detective in Botswana a series oddly enough penned by Scottish Alexander McCall Smith (whom at least was born in Rhodesia). And note the lack of reciprocity; we’re not telling “white” stories and when we do, all hell breaks loose. One instance of note is Millenia Black who had to sue Penguin to be allowed to write all-white characters (as was in her original manuscript) and be marketed as a mainstream author instead of pigeon-holed into the limited African-American niche. They loved the book until they discovered that Millenia was black.

    It is good to see at least on director of color directing “white” stories – mainly Ang Lee who did The Ice Storm and the Jane Austen classic Sense and Sensibility.

    In other words, if they get to tell our stories, we should be able to tell theirs. No reciprocity, no justice.