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

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by Tambay A. Obenson
March 19, 2012 5:57 PM
7 Comments
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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...

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7 Comments

  • moionfire | March 24, 2012 5:43 AMReply

    This is BS. They just wanted a famous black actor, and there aren't that many black south african actors that are well known in Europe, the UK, and the USA. The director should be honest.

  • S | March 20, 2012 10:05 AMReply

    One thing about the film industry in South Africa is that apartheid hasn't ended in the industry. The heads of these casting agencies and production companies are still corrupted in their view of black talent. The more they can oppress these talented actors, the more comfortable that they feel that "Black people won't take over."

  • ambrose | March 20, 2012 4:21 AMReply

    It does make a good business sense. Whether we will admit it or not, but it is the truth. Denzel Washington managed to do Cry Freedom. He had pressure then... I believe given a change Idris Elba will be able to do the part. One of the biggest challenges will be the Madiba dance and the accent. The issue of height is just nonsense. We do have tall men in South African. If we do not have tall men in South Africa, then where was Madiba born? Even so, there are those who are even taller than Madiba. I am taller than Madiba and there are those who happen to be a lot taller than me. Madiba is an Icon and Idris is also known world wide. We as South African should throw away the foul Umbrella and do something. We are too comfortable in complaining than doing something.

  • Accidental Visitor | March 19, 2012 7:47 PMReply

    Most actors aren't tall regardless of what country they come from.

  • Jug | March 19, 2012 8:06 PM

    Right! The thing about this business is the lies we tell are SO unnecessary sometimes. Just say "Hey, we wanted an actor with star power to match that of Mandela". Is it true? Uhh not really, but a lot more believable & closer to a real reason than "he was tall." LOL That's one of those "we searched everywhere, high & low & couldn't find one" rationalizations. The truth shall, indeed, set you free.

  • Nicole | March 19, 2012 6:59 PMReply

    Mandela is 6' 4 ? Wow. I never knew.

    Yeah, that "not tall enough" sounds like bs. They needed/wanted a name and Idris has a name now. Casting a local wouldn't get the movie the attention it wants. I'm sure they're hoping for some awards consideration too.

    Not to downplay the concerns of the actors in SA but I think Idris and Naomi will do an extraordinary job.

  • Ms. Stone | March 19, 2012 6:16 PMReply

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Not tall enough? Wow.

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