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South African Casting Agent: "Local Actors Too Short To Play Mandela So I Cast Idris Elba" (Criticism Follows)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act March 19, 2012 at 5:57PM

I'm sure everyone saw this coming... criticism over the choice of Idris Elba to play Nelson Mandela in a film based on his life, which we've been following here on S&A.
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Idris Nelson

I'm sure everyone saw this coming... criticism over the choice of Idris Elba to play Nelson Mandela in a film based on his life, which we've been following here on S&A.

Idris, the British actor born in London to parents from Ghana (mother) and Sierra Leone (father), obviously isn't South African as the real-life character he'll be playing (Nelson Mandela) is, and, as we saw in past situations in which non-South African actors played Mandela (most recently Morgan Freeman and Terence Howard), South African actors and the organization that represents actors in that country, the Creative Workers Union of South Africa, are crying foul. 

But this time, there's actually a bit of a twist in this story, if I can even call it that; reasons are actually given for why South African actors weren't considered for the part of Mandela in this new project - reasons that'll cause a stir amongst South African actors. 

Specifically, the country's top casting agent Moonyeenn Lee, who hand-picked Elba for the role (I actually thought Elba initiated the project after previously saying that it'll be a dream project) said South African actors, on average, are too short!

What's that you say? 

 "I was free to cast a South African, and I auditioned some extraordinary local actors... But the main problem is the height. Mandela is a particularly tall man. On average, South African actors are not 1.9 metres," Lee told the South African newspaper City Press, printed yesterday.

Further, Lee added: "The country also lacked experienced actors, as a consequence of apartheid... 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."

Mandela is about 6 ft 4 in by the way; I'm not sure if it's obvious that he's that tall, unless you've met him in person; and, according to casting director Lee, this is a problem in casting the role - that and, as he states, the experience amonst the older actors just isn't there, in short, thanks to apartheid. 

I'd imagine it would indeed be tougher to cast a man that tall no matter what country you're living in; average height for a man (looking globally) is probably around 5 ft 8 or 9 in, or thereabouts, right? So, casting a 6 ft 4 incher means slimmer pickings; BUT it certainly doesn't mean that they don't exist; it might mean searching longer and harder... IF you're determined to do so.

But as Mabutho Kid Sithole, president of the Creative Workers Union of South African, the same organization that led protests against the casting of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela in Winnie, 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.

Sithole states: “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. They use these stars for commercial reasons and the problem is South African business is not funding our own films... Meanwhile South African actors are good enough for the other roles. We see this happen over and over. Tomorrow there will be a film about Walter Sisulu and then what? No one is short enough? You tell me now, how will this actor pronounce Qunu where Mandela was born or Rolihlahla, his real name?” 

This recalls the recent kerfuffle over the casting of Thandie Newton (A Brit of Zimbabwean decent - her mother; her father is white) as an Igbo woman in the upcoming film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Of course there've been several other similar examples; that one's the most recent I can remember.

I'm sure our friends at Africa Is A Country will have an opinion on this...

This article is related to: Idris Elba


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