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Idris Elba to play Nelson Mandela in biopic because South African actors 'too short'

South Africans angry that yet another foreign actor has been cast as Mandela, their national icon, in a major film.
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Actor Idris Elba will play Nelson Mandela in the upcoming biopic Long Walk To Freedom. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG — British actor Idris Elba has been cast as Nelson Mandela in a new biopic, a film version of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom — and South Africans are wondering why, yet again, a foreigner is playing their national icon.

Elba (Stringer Bell in legendary HBO series The Wire) is the latest big-name actor from abroad to play Mandela, following in the footsteps of Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover and Terrence Howard.

In response to criticism from South Africans angry that homegrown actors are passed up in favor of Hollywood stars, the casting director claimed the reason for choosing Elba was not because of a lack of local talent.

“I was free to cast a South African and I auditioned some extraordinary local actors,” Moonyeenn Lee told South Africa's City Press newspaper. “But the main problem is the height. Mandela is a particularly tall man. On average, South African actors are not 1.9m.”  

(Elba, at 6-foot-2, is still shorter than 6-foot-4 Mandela.)

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Mabutho Kid Sithole, president of the Creative Workers Union of South Africa — which in 2009 protested the casting of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the film Winnie — isn't buying Lee's explanation.

“We are not impressed. So no one is tall enough? There’s always some reason to avoid using South African actors and having other people tell our stories,” he told City Press. “Meanwhile South African actors are good enough for the other roles."

“You tell me now," Sithole added, "how will this actor pronounce Qunu where Mandela was born, or Rolihlahla, his real name?”

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A story in today's Johannesburg Times, with the headline "Short, black and sidelined," cited unnamed "industry insiders" that pointed to the business reasons behind Mandela casting decisions.

"It's really about the business side of it. We would all love a South African in the lead, but you have to look at who is doing the investment and whether they want a guarantee of their money back," a local producer told the newspaper.

"The sad part is there are very few black actors the international marketplace will back."

The feature film, directed by Justin Chadwick, a Briton, will begin shooting May 26, according to Hollywood Reporter.

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