Nelson Mandela Onscreen

With a new biopic now in theaters, the late anti-apartheid crusader's life continues to fascinate and inspire.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela on Thursday at age 95, the huge success of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" takes on an even deeper relevance.

Starring British actor Idris Elba as the late anti-apartheid crusader, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is in part based on Mandela's bestselling 1994 memoir of the same name, and follows his path from idealistic student to his leadership of the African National Congress to imprisonment on Robben Island and eventual political ascension after his release.

The movie, which debuted in Mandela's native South Africa on November 28, has become the country's highest grossing picture. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," has already earned $427,000 (Rand 4.4 million), according to Videovision Entertainment.

"To call the prospect of playing Nelson Mandela intimidating would be to put it lightly," Elba told the Independent of the role. "But it's a massive honor to play this saint amongst men. I was honestly confused about why they came to me. I thought, 'You can't be serious! You chose me out of everyone you could have gone to?' Then I found out that Nelson Mandela was into 'The Wire.' I thought, 'It's amazing – he might have kicked back and watched the 'Wire' box set!' The role was definitely the biggest challenge of my life. I look and sound nothing like the man – but hopefully I've pulled it off."

One person privileged to have been granted a sneak peek has no issues with Elba in the role. The man who the film is based on.

“He asked, ‘Is that me or is that an actor?’"Mark Coulier, the makeup artist who helped Elba incarnate the role, told the Los Angeles Times of Mandela's reaction to early footage screened for the iconic leader. The picture was made in consultation with the Mandela family and his foundation.

This fall also saw the release "Winnie," featuring Jennifer Hudson as Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Terrence Howard as South Africa's first black president.

The film's director, South African Darrell Roodt described "Winnie" as "the ultimate women's movie" and "an amazing love story." That description did not sit well with the film's subject, who was not involved in the production and responded to Roodt's statements saying: "I think it is an insult. I don't know what would be romantic in our bitter struggle."

She told CNN: "I have absolutely nothing against Jennifer [Hudson], but I have everything against the movie itself. ... I was not consulted. I am still alive, and I think that it is a total disrespect to come to South Africa, make a movie about my struggle, and call that movie some translation of a romantic life of Winnie Mandela."

"Winnie" premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 2011 and struggled to find distributors. It had a limited release in Canada in 2012 and Image Entertainment, who acquired the USA distribution rights, eventually released the movie on September 6. 

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and "Winnie" are not the first time the life of Mandela has inspired movies. Elba and Howard join a list of actors who have portrayed the freedom fighter that includes Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman.

Below is a list of productions featuring the late President of the Republic of South Africa:

"Mandela" (1987)

Danny Glover stars in the titular role of this HBO produced television film. Alfre Woodard portrayed Mandela's wife Winnie. At the time the film was made Mandela was in the 25th year of his prison sentence. The movie covers the period between 1948 to 1987 and traces Mandela's evolution from young lawyer to anti-Apartheid political activist.

As with "Winnie," Winnie Mandela was vocal in her disapproval of the project according to the Los Angeles Times.  "To these people, we are nothing but a source of dollars," she said through her lawyer about the producers of the film cable-TV movie.  "These people should please leave us alone," a statement quoted her as saying. "This film serves no political purpose and was made solely for commercial reasons. The producers are just cashing in on the name of the family."

"Malcolm X" (1992)

Just after his release from prison and just before he became president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela made a brief appearance in Spike Lee's biopic of American black nationalist leader Malcolm X. Mandela plays a Soweto schoolteacher addressing his pupils who one by one declare, "I am Malcolm X." The scene comes at the very end of the film.

During filming Mandela refused to repeat the last four words of Malcolm's speech "by any means necessary," so Lee instead inserted black and white footage of Malcolm saying it himself.

"Mandela and de Klerk" (1997)

Sidney Poitier portrays the great leader in this biopic alongside Michael Caine as South African President F.W. de Klerk. Set in 1964, the made for television movie follows Mandela as he is released from prison after 27 years and the relationship he had with the then president. Filmed in South Africa, the movie used many locations where the actual events depicted took place and the dramatized sequences feature augmented newsreel footage from the time.

"Invictus" (2009)

The Clint Eastwood-directed sports biopic features Matt Damon as the captain of South Africa's rugby team Francois Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Mandela. Set in the 1990s, the film revolves around Mandela, recently released from prison, and his attempts to unite blacks and whites in support of their national team the Springboks as South Africa hosts the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

As the team learns to come together as one, the nation slowly does the same. The movie culminates with the Springboks win over the New Zealand All Blacks.

Mandela viewed the film with Freeman sitting beside him. When Freeman as Mandela first appeared onscreen, the actor says Mandela whispered to him, "I know that fellow."

"It was the perfect story to depict Mandela," Freeman said at the time. "Who he is, how he is, how he thinks, how he operates. It's all incorporated into this story."

The film received many accolades with Freeman receiving a best actor Golden Globe, SAG award and nomination for the best actor Academy Award for his portrayal.

Honorable mention:

"The Cosby Show" (1987)

In the hit television series, Cliff Huxtable's (Bill Cosby) eldest daughter Sondra and husband Elvin become pregnant in the shows fourth season (1987-88). The resulting twins were named Nelson and Winnie, in honor of the leader and his wife Winnie. While the character of Mandela is never actually seen onscreen, the naming of the children represented the leader's importance to and influence on international race relations at the time.

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