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Playing Mandela: The legendary South African onscreen

Morgan Freeman has played real-life characters before onscreen, mostnotably in Lean on Me, but with his latest role he takes on one of themost venerated people in the world, Nelson Mandela.

Morgan Freeman has played real-life characters before onscreen, most notably in Lean on Me, but with his latest role he takes on one of the most venerated people in the world, Nelson Mandela.


“This started out with Madiba (honourary title adopted by elders of Mandela’s clan) naming me as his heir apparent,” says Freeman. “When he was asked… ‘Mr. Mandela, if your book becomes a movie, who would you like to play you?’ He said, ‘Morgan Freeman.’”


That was fourteen years ago. It took Freeman that amount of time to find and develop Invictus — this weekend’s look at Mandela’s plan to use a rugby team as a symbol of South African unity — into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Freeman used that time to prepare, getting to know the real Mandela.


Freeman may be the latest to play Mandela on screen, but he isn’t the first.


The first major dramatization at Mandela’s life starred Danny Glover (who won an Emmy for his work) and was made in the 25th year of his 27-year prison sentence. Shot on location in Zimbabwe, the made-for-TV Mandela covers the years 1948 to 1987, focusing on not just on Mandela’s struggle for freedom but his personal life as well.


“I’m always interested in people who become symbols,” said writer Ronald Harwood, “and I’m curious to know what such people are like as ordinary men and women, beneath the trappings we bestow upon them.”


Next came Mandela and deKlerk, another made-for-television drama starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine. The story of how these men engineered the end of apartheid was shot in South Africa at many of the locations where the real story took place. Newsreel footage furthers the film’s feeling of historical authenticity.


There have been several other dramas based on Mandela’s life, including Goodbye Bafana, starring 24’s Dennis Haysbert, but to catch a glimpse of the man himself, check out Malcolm X.


Just months after his release from prison, Mandela played a schoolteacher in a Soweto classroom in the film’s final scene, reciting a snippet of one of Malcolm X’s most famous speeches.

 
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