Rob Edelman: Mandela and Celebrity

Dec 23, 2013

While soaking in the coverage on CNN of the death of Nelson Mandela, I was not surprised to hear the deservedly respectful quotes from diverse political figures. Certainly, Barack Obama’s declaration that Mandela “no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages” is ever-so appropriate.

Given my profession, it is no surprise that I also found myself thinking of the newly-released biopic, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. I wondered if Nelson Mandela’s death somehow will impact on ticket sales for this film, which certainly is not an automatic must-see item among the masses of moviegoers.

As I was watching CNN and thinking of the Mandela biopic, a quote from another American luminary was cited. This one was not from a Bill Clinton, a George W. Bush, or a Barack Obama. It was from Morgan Freeman, who several years ago earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination playing Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s INVICTUS. Morgan Freeman is a fine actor, and I could offer a lengthy discourse on the flow of his career. But why was his Mandela statement mixed in with the others? Was it merely because he played Nelson Mandela in a movie, and he is a celebrity? This is reminiscent of the old cough syrup commercial in which an actor declares, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” and somehow, for this reason alone, viewers are supposed to give this spokesperson more credence than they would a real doctor.

The Morgan Freeman “appearance” on CNN also reminded me of the network’s coverage of what I recall to be an anti-Iraqi war demonstration that took place a decade or so ago. It would be appropriate for the media to have spotlighted, for example, a World War II veteran who earned medals for valor and a relative of a 9/11 casualty who were marching in the demonstration but, as I recall, the CNN headline focused on the celebrities, the movie stars, who were present.

There really is something amiss here.

Aside from all this, and the fact of Mandela’s death coincided with the release of MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, the film is worth discussing because it is a candid, insightful biopic. I was particularly intrigued by Idris Elba’s interpretation of this iconic figure, and I was intrigued to learn at the MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM Toronto Film Festival press conference about how Elba prepared for the role, and about his time spent at Robben Island, the South African prison which housed Mandela for eighteen years, and how and why he chose to spend a night all alone in what once upon a time was Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.

Well, if Robert De Niro-- back when he was choosing to regularly appear in high-quality films-- could drive a cab while preparing for TAXI DRIVER and learn to play the saxophone while preparing for NEW YORK, NEW YORK and hit baseballs while preparing for BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, why not pass time in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell while preparing to play... Nelson Mandela.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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