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In search of players for ?the African stage

By Nana Yaa Mensah
Posted on Monday, 26 July 2010 09:17

Recent films such as the South African-based Invictus raise the question of why more African actors are not playing lead roles

The story goes: Hollywood blockbuster lands on screens on both sides of the Atlantic, boasting big-name actors and Oscar nominations. The twist? It’s a film about South Africa. Set during the years following Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island in 1990, Invictus shows how Mandela united South Africans by championing the Springboks – transforming the rugby team’s success into a shared obsession for both blacks and whites in the newly-democratic nation.

The facts are recent enough news for Invictus to look familiar. It seems the perfect opportunity for South Africa to revisit those first days of freedom and show the world the way it achieved reconciliation. The film is based on the best-selling book Playing the Enemy by British journalist John Carlin (click here to read an interview with the author). But its A-list casting on both sides of the camera consists of foreign names: Morgan Freeman as Mandela, Matt Damon as the Springboks’ François Pienaar and Clint Eastwood as director/producer. The loudest complaint is that this is not really a South African-made production.

Adjoa Andoh, the British-Ghanaian actress who plays the part of Brenda Mazibuko, Mandela’s fictional chief of staff, disagrees. “There were 73 actors in all and out of those about 10 of us were non-South Africans. Morgan and I played the two black roles,” she tells The Africa Report. For the other non-South Africans, Scott Eastwood [son of Clint] plays one of the Springboks, Julian Lewis Jones is the top white presidential bodyguard and Matt Damon is François Pienaar.” Among the rest are Australian-born Penny Downie, who plays the part of Mrs Pienaar. “Yes, the producers could have asked a white South African to play Pienaar, but then Damon comes to the film with a certain Hollywood clout attached to his name.”?

Playing the part?

Andoh’s performance is superb. She is absorbed, unselfconscious and authentic-sounding. Whether a star-studded flick or not, she often looks unglamorous, yet she is the focus of energy around which much of Mandela’s thinking revolves. In one five-minute scene she is completely silent, sitting in the back of a car between the president and his sports minister as they discuss the imminent rugby World Cup final. Brenda is ploughing through paperwork, getting Mandela to sign letters. She does not once raise her eyes to the camera, but your eyes do not leave her.

It was Andoh’s first appearance in such a big production. She has been a working actress for 25 years but is better known for her work in the theatre (she was Condoleezza Rice in David Hare’s Stuff Happens), and in radio, where she is a frequent voice on the BBC World Service. On television she is best known for her role in the BBC hospital drama Casualty between 1993 and 2003.

She says she won the role of Brenda by dazzling Clint Eastwood. “He casts only from tapes. On the first day of shooting in South Africa, he said to me: ‘What part of South Africa are you from?'”

It is such an achievement that it seems churlish to question why she should have first claim to a role that a South African could play. The country’s film industry and long-established theatre community should have made it easy to find skilled actors to play the key parts.

“The film wouldn’t have been made on this scale without the involvement of names like Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood,” she says. “Morgan read Playing the Enemyand loved it, and bought the rights. He’d been looking for a chance to make this happen – it was an idea he’d been working on for 20 years.”

But she concedes: “We Africans don’t get enough. Every new film or play that comes along has [to] be all the meals that we’ve never had that we want to eat… It’s a heavy burden on our playwrights, our actors, our artists. The chances are never enough. But you can only ever taste one meal at a time. We need more meals, more moments, so that we can see more of our stories up there on the big screen and begin to get beyond the idea that we are here just to represent.”?

Mandela’s mandate?

She stresses the film’s “official” seal of approval. With the project close to take-off, Freeman went to see Mandela to seek his blessing. It was a perfect match: apparently Mandela, whenever he was asked who would be the perfect person to play him in a film, had always said Freeman.

Yet some say the American actor’s performance is one of the movie’s weakest points. Physically, he inhabits the role well but sometimes he looks ill at ease. In one scene where he is supposed to do the ‘Madiba shuffle’, he shifts from one foot to the other, as if rocking away indigestion. When he speaks, his accent takes a trip around the world, yet his was one of two performances from Invictus up for laurels at the Oscars on 7 March (the other was Matt Damon’s).

Freeman’s turn is the anti-thesis of David Harewood’s in this year’s BBC television film Mrs Mandela. In that case, the British actor’s vocal interpretation was amazing but he did not try to look the part. Anglo-Nigerian actress Sophie Okonedo, though no match for Winnie Mandela’s build, won applause for her granite-faced portrayal of the title character. Clearly both Okonedo (who also starred in the film Hotel Rwanda in 2004) and Harewood are strikingly talented.

That they are based, for now, in London (Harewood is moving to Hollywood) must give them access to sharp agents and help them stay plugged into the industry network that keeps their profiles high. But aren’t viewers looking for films that push the boundaries further and echo the tone of real lives? To what extent do these movies, and series such as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, give a voice to Africa? Do our stars always have to be foreign??

Another high-profile test will be a biopic of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, due to go into production soon, which is scripted by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele and directed by the Caméra d’Or winner Steve McQueen. An inside source says a “British actor” has been cast in the main role.

More, more, more

“I understand the challenges,” says Andoh, “but we simply need more writers, more directors, more producers – especially in the film industry on the African continent – working to improve the distribution base for African-made films.”

Along with actor/director Danny Glover, she is involved in a collective called Tipping Point, exploring ways to make “films that wouldn’t otherwise get made”. Its output includes the award-winning Bamako by Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako and Black Gold, the 2006 documentary about Ethiopian farmers and the coffee trade. But, she says: “As long as Hollywood is the huge industry that it is, we’ll either have to find some way of working with it or keep fighting to get up on to that big screen.”

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s April-May edition.