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Nelson Mandela Biopic Explores What Makes a Fearless Leader Tick

'Long Walk to Freedom' aims to show 'the Mandela that you think you know but you don’t know'

Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
Georges De Keerle/Getty Images
September 14, 2013 5:59 PM ET

The same week that Nelson Mandela was discharged from the hospital after three months of treatment for a lung infection, the biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom held its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Directed by Justin Chadwick and based on the former South African president's autobiography, the film follows Mandela (played by Idris Elba of Luther and The Wire) from his childhood in a small village through his 27-year imprisonment and eventual release. While charting the monumental events in the leader’s biography, including his early political days in Johannesburg, his powerful relationship with his second wife, Winnie (played by Naomie Harris), and his revolutionary years heading up the African National Congress, the filmmakers said they also wanted to offer insight into what made the fearless man tick.

"His personal point of view is the way we made this film," producer Anant Singh said. "It was the Mandela that you think you know but you don’t know."

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Singh began the project more than two decades ago, interviewing Mandela while he was still imprisoned. He describes his relationship with the human rights leader as "very close." Following the publication of Mandela’s autobiography, Singh was granted the rights to the film adaptation, a process that took more than sixteen years to complete.

"I was honored that he chose me as the custodian of these rights," Singh said as he introduced the film. "But entrusting the rights to something like this, to someone like myself, came with responsibility." The filmmakers had complete access to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s archives to draw from, as well as the leader’s friends and family. (At the premiere, TIFF programmer Cameron Bailey read letters of support for the film from Mandela’s comrades in prison and his foundation.)

"[Mandela] was very supportive, but he basically said, I’m granting you the rights, don’t bother me," Singh remembers. "Occasionally we would go to his office and his Centre of Memory, and they were a resource to give us everything, and they were so open in all of that."

Elba didn’t have a chance to meet with the leader, but he talked to Mandela's friends and family in preparation for the role. "The foundation and his family were very influential to the film. I met with Zinzi and Zenani, his daughters, and they just told me, listen, I want you to represent the man," Elba told Rolling Stone. "And that was all I needed to know."
 Elba added, "I wanted South Africans to be proud of the performance, and the film – and my mum, and dad, who really are big fans of Mandela."


Nelson Mandela still hasn’t seen the film, which was finished only days before its world premiere, but Singh has showed him select scenes, and the subject approves. "When he saw the image of his Madiba shirt, he said, 'Is that me?' He was very charmed by it, obviously an endorsement of Idris playing him," Singh said. "Now that he’s home from the hospital we’ll try to show him the film."

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