JOHANNESBURG — It's not easy to play a living legend like Nelson Mandela, but Hollywood star Sidney Poitier is going to have a go, ruffling the feathers of South African actors who say the film role belongs to them.
Poitier is to star in a United-States-backed movie. South African actors are pinning their hopes on a rival, homemade feature that is to be the "official" screen version of the life of the prisoner-turned-president. "These films need stars but it's more of a cultural argument we are putting forward. The veracity of the story, its texture and reality, could only come from a South African performance," says Dan Robbertse of the actors' union PAWE.
Poitier, offered the role by the American backers of a television film for the US Showtime channel, will be the first person to play Mandela for over a decade. But with two films now in the pipeline - Poitier's due late this year, another by 1998 - and rumors of a third backed by singer Harry Belafonte, Mandela will soon have received an unprecedented amount of film coverage.
Mandela showed his support for the tiny local film industry by selling rights to his best-selling autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," to South African director Anant Singh. "It is our duty to primarily support our own artists and give them resources and backing," he says.
"It's a very demanding but very rewarding role, it's Oscar material for any actor and covers a tremendous range," Singh says. "It has every element of every actor's dream."
South African producer David Wicht defended the use of foreign actors in his film, which deals with the transition from black to white rule in the 1990s. "There are only few actors out there who could convincingly play Nelson Mandela and Sidney Poitier is one of them," he says. Wicht adds that backers had only been willing to fund his film provided Poitier said yes. His modest budget is somewhere around $4 million, less than half what Singh expects to spend.
"Mandela is our national treasure," PAWE's Robbertse says, adding that local actors John Kani, Winston Ntshona, or Zakes Mokae all had the skill and the international credibility to play the man, from his early 20s to the present day.
But Singh will not predict who will get the role. "Hopefully someone here in South Africa will be suitable to play Mandela. The president did not say who he would like to play him - but he told me he is not available."