JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A few blocks from Nelson Mandela’s house, the producer of a new biopic about South Africa’s first black president recalls getting the official blessing for his film, many years ago.
Anant Singh started working on “Long Walk to Freedom” — based on Mandela’s autobiography — more than two decades ago, before the anti-apartheid hero was even a free man.
“Madiba was still in prison when I started writing to him,” Singh said, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name.
Fresh from its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Long Walk to Freedom” this week held its first South African event at Mandela’s charity headquarters in the Houghton neighborhood of Johannesburg.
It is only a short walk from where Mandela, who turned 95 in July, lies in what has been described as a “permanent vegetative state” in his at-home intensive care ward.
When he was still in good health, Mandela gave his support to Singh, a fellow South African, to pursue the project. But in recent years he has been hospitalized repeatedly with a recurring lung infection and other health problems, only visited by family members and top political leaders.
This film, like most others about Mandela, stars a non-South African in the leading role — Idris Elba, a British actor who earned praise in the United States for his role as Stringer Bell in HBO’s series The Wire.
Tony Kgoroge, who played Mandela’s lifelong friend and African National Congress comrade Walter Sisulu in the film, said Elba “went the extra mile” to get into his role, even spending a night in Mandela’s former jail cell on Robben Island.
Elba had to work especially hard to perfect Mandela’s distinctive accent, with its unusual “R” sounds.
“The Mandela accent is a very difficult one to do even for South Africans,” Kgorgoe said.
Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, said the plan is to launch youth programs in South Africa and the United States, using the film as well as a comic book version of “Long Walk to Freedom” as educational tools.
“We were mandated by Mr. Mandela himself to deploy archivists and researchers who had to then work with Anant, to make sure the project comes out very well,” Hatang said. “This is a proud moment for us.”
Watch the "Long Walk to Freedom" movie trailer here: