When Nelson Mandela recently watched footage of “Mandela,” a new biopic in which Idris Elba plays the charismatic South African leader, he was so transfixed by the performance he posed a telling question.
“He asked, ‘Is that me or is that an actor?’ ” said Mark Coulier, the makeup artist who helped Elba incarnate the role. “That’s what Idris is able to bring to the part.”
As the world prays for the ailing leader’s health — the 94-year-old icon remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital — the film has grown in importance. Weinstein Co. is set to release the movie this fall, the realization of a 2-decade-old dream of film producer and longtime Mandela friend Anant Singh.
Directed by Justin Chadwick (“The First Grader”) in part from Mandela’s bestselling 1994 memoir “Long Walk to Freedom,” the movie follows the anti-apartheid crusader known as Madiba from his student days and early leadership of the African National Congress to his long imprisonment on Robben Island and eventual freedom and political ascension.
Despite the sprawling nature of the tale, Harvey Weinstein told reporters in Cannes that the movie takes pains to avoid the pitfalls of a traditional biopic. “This is not your daddy’s HBO version of Mandela,” he said of the historical piece. “It’s a warts-and-all story of Mandela and the end of apartheid.”
The movie isn’t the first modern take on the leader’s life, of course. Clint Eastwood took on the early-90’s period after South Africa won the rugby World Cup in the wake of Mandela’s liberation (Morgan Freeman played the leader), while a long-delayed biopic “Winnie” has Jennifer Hudson incarnating the leader’s longtime wife Winnie Mandela and Terrence Howard as the man himself.
As for Mandela’s desire to see the Chadwick film, Coulier, at least, has a strong opinion.
“It would be a tragedy if Mandela won’t be able to see it,” Coulier said. “He waited a long time to see this dream come true.”
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