Should Non-African Blacks Be Cast in African Roles?

March 21, 2012  |  

Idris Elba, my boyfriend-in-my-head, is in the midst of a little bit of international controversy and it is not because of being so gosh darn fine as all Hell. No apparently there is some backlash to a role he is set to play in a movie.

According to Shadow and Act, Elba has been cast as South African freedom fighter and former President Nelson Mandela in the upcoming biopic called Long Walk to Freedom.  The film, which is set in South Africa, will span Mandela’s life journey from his childhood to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Film producers, who include Dave Thompson (co-producer of Sarafina!), have been developing this project for years. It will likely be distributed first in the U.K. and France before reaching U.S. markets.  Oh and case you are wondering, the film has the complete blessings of Mandela, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

Seriously another movie centered on the life story of Nelson Mandela? Don’t get me wrong:  Are there no other historical figures – living or dead – from the continent that we can profile? How about Enoch Sontonga or Haile Selassie or even Queen Nzinga?  Those are the few figures  I can think of off-hand, whose achievements are riveting enough to warrant a biopic of their own. Not that Mandela’s story isn’t fascinating and important enough to be retold from many angles but it’s kind of like that Chris Rock joke about how all the answers to Black History questions is Martin Luther King. Anyway, I digress. Back to the issue at hand.

According to Shadow and Act, the Creative Workers Union of South Africa is quite upset over the casting of Elba casting.  Although he is born to a mother from Ghana and a father from Sierra Leone, the South African actors union is upset that a real South African, who sounds and looks like a South African, was not given the role. Responding to the allegations, Moonyeenn Lee, the South African casting agency that hand selected Elba for the role, said that they had, in fact, auditioned some local actors for the lead role; however, none of them were tall enough for the part. To be fair, Mandela is a particularly tall man for a South African, sizing in at around 6 foot 4 inches. On average, South Africans are only about 5 foot 8 inches in height.

Likewise the casting agency also said that because of apartheid, the country also lacks experienced actors: “The younger actors have had a chance to go and study and learn and work with internationals. The older actors, growing up during apartheid, had to deal with the cultural boycott, [with] very few roles on television and almost none in film. There simply aren’t enough actors to choose from.”

But as Mabutho Kid Sithole, president of the Creative Workers Union of South African retorts, “this is all BS and really it’s a business/money decision, as Elba would likely be a bigger attraction in the international marketplace than a local South African actor, and this has absolutely nothing to do with height concerns.”

If this issue sounds familiar, about a year or so ago, Creative Workers Union of South African also called out the makers of another (yes, another) Mandela film called Winnie starring Terrance Howard as a light skinned Mandela and Jennifer Hudson as Winnie. The film was directed by South African film-maker Darrell J. Roodt, whose films include ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ and ‘Sarafina! and is based on the unauthorized biography about the former wife of Nelson Mandela.  It also featured one of the most laughable South African tongues ever recorded on film, courtesy of J. Hud. When it was announced last year that Hudson was to play the lead role, the same group argued that using foreign actors to tell South African stories undermined efforts to develop a national film industry.

There are others who have taken a similar stance in respects to non-Africans playing the role of Africans in film. Fairly recently, Thandie Newton, who is half English and half Zimbabwean, found herself in the midst of a casting controversy after being selected for the lead role in the film production of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Many people took issue with Newton not being Igbo enough for the film version of the book, which chronicles the lives of several characters during the course of the Biafran War that took place in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. There is even a petition to protest the casting, claiming that “Igbo people, like any other people range in physical characteristics as well as complexion. However, the majority of Igbos are dark brown in complexion. Igbo people do not look like the bi-racial Thandie Newton. Newton is an accomplished and talented actress in her own right. However, she is not Igbo, she is not Nigerian, and she does not physically resemble Igbo women in the slightest.”

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