Countless public figures have been immortalized on the silver screen. But it takes someone special, an international symbol of freedom at the center of sweeping democratic changes, to be celebrated 20 times. Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist, statesman and all-around champion of human rights, is just that person. Here are Madiba's strongest appearances on film.
Born in 1918, Mandela spent most of his life fighting against South Africa's brutal apartheid system, which stripped black citizens of their rights while enforcing white minority rule. A leader of the African National Congress, Mandela was imprisoned by the South African government in the early Sixties, and was serving a life sentence when this made-for-TV biopic was broadcast on HBO in 1987. Filmed in Zimbabwe and starring Danny Glover – who recieved a Primetime Emmy nomination for his performance – Mandela offers a personal look at the internationally renowned activist, from his time as a young attorney in the late 40s to his move towards Che Guevara-inspired militancy after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
In 1990, South African president F. W. de Klerk legalized Mandela's African National Congress and released Mandiba from his Robben Island cell. Both decisions paved the way for the end of apartheid, which culminated in the 1994 election of Mandela as South Africa's first black president. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their efforts, and Mandela and de Klerk – a TV movie directed by Joseph Sargent – shows how their relationship began. Oscar-winners Poitier and Michael Caine (who plays de Klerk) make a great pair; both demeonstrate unease here as they bring a grave nighttime discussion to a close.
Mandela spent most of his 27-years imprisonment on Robben Island, a compound off the Cape Town coast where political prisoners labored in a limestone quarry. Mandela endured many humiliations and cruelties there, but he also learned negotiating skills that would later serve his statesman career. Oh, and he also made a lasting impact on a guard named James Gregory, whose relationship with Mandela forms the basis of this 2007 film (released on DVD in the U.S. under the title The Color of Freedom). Based on Gregory's memoir of the same name, Goodbye Bafana demonstrates how Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) learned to overcome his own bigotry.
Mandela served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and Invictus takes place in the thick of that historic moment. In a role he was born to play, Morgan Freeman plunges into full statesman mode, attempting to broker reconciliation between white and black South Africans with an assist from the Springboks, the deeply-divided nation's rugby team, during the South Africa-hosted 1995 Rugby World Cup. Matt Damon co-stars as Springbok team captain François Pienaar in this Clint Eastwood-directed film, which is based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation.
Mandela and de Klerk might've shared the credit for ending apartheid, but they weren't the only statesmen involved. In Endgame, Mandela is played by the great Clarke Peters, known for his memorable turns in Treme and The Wire. But this time around, our hero is Thabo Mbeki, who served as deputy president under Mandela and later succeeded him as chief executive. He's played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who takes center stage in director Pete Travis' tense depiction of the final days of apartheid.
Homeland fans will recognize Harewood as CIA officer David Estes, the director of the counterterrorism center. But this BBC one-off doesn't focus on Harewood's Mandela so much as Mandela's second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (played by Sophie Okonedo). One of South Africa's best-known (and controversial) anti-apartheid activists, Madikizela-Mandela has been called the "Mother of the Nation," but in the Eighties she became infamous for adopting a highly militant stance and endorsing a gruesome practice called necklacing.
Nelson Mandela was bold and compassionate, keeping his composure even in the face of the most brutal repression of his people. But he was also widely known for his style and humor, and Howard's charismatic performance conveys that passion and romance via sharp suits and a trimmed hairdo.
This new biopic, based on Mandela's autobiography, covers the major touchstones in Mandiba's life, including the historic Rivonia trial where Mandela declared that he'd be prepared to die fighting for the cause of democracy and equal rights. Elba ruled the streets of Baltimore in The Wire and manned the gates of Asgard in Thor: The Dark World. But neither compares to playing one of the world's greatest icons of justice for all.