For most of the 21st Century, moviegoers have watched African-American actors play lead roles in movies about African figures and in the process push local talent to the background while a major Hollywood star basks in the spotlight.
On the heels of Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman stepping into the enormous shoes of former South African President Nelson Mandela to portray him in the movie” Invictus,” South African director Darrell Roodt (“Sarafina!”) decided the former first lady, Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, hailed as ‘mother of the nation’ by some, life story should be next. And Oscar-winning actress/singer Jennifer Hudson would be the one to play her—setting off a media firestorm from the Creative Workers Union of South Africa (CWUSA), made up of musicians, actors, producers and writers.
Oupa Lebogo, the union’s secretary general, has threatened to boycott the movie, unless the film’s producers reconsider casting Hudson, Sunday Nation reports. (The film is based on “Winnie Mandela: A Life,” (Zebra Books 2003) an unofficial biography by Anna Marie du Preez Bezdrob, which will start filming in May).
“We can’t allow this to happen. We have people who can play the role far better than Jennifer.” Lebogo said.
It’s not often that American films showcase African actors’ talent unless it’s in a supporting role, a trend that has dated back to the 1950s with Sidney Poitier in the international bestseller book-turned-movie “Cry, The Beloved Country.”
N. Frank Ukadike, associate professor of film and African Diaspora at Tulane University, told The AFRican that the conflict extends far beyond this recent revolt.
“This has been going on for a long time,” says Ukadike. “South African filmmaking is intertwining with Hollywood. Everything they want to do they see it from a Hollywood perspective.”
In the process, South Africa’s own movie industry is being compromised as a result.
Mabutho Sithole, the union’s president, told Times Online that “it can’t happen that we want to develop our own Hollywood, and yet we keep bringing in imports.”
According to Times, South Africa has lost thousands of jobs as a result of the worldwide recession, due to high gold prices, and has deeply impacted the country’s film industry. Whereas Nigeria’s “Nollywood” movement continues to flourish; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ranked Nigeria as the world’s second largest film industry in a global movie survey, India was first, for 2009.
Unlike South Africa’s structural moviemaking formula that relies on movie tickets, Nigeria depends on video to attract their ever-growing audience which is the peak of the country’s film popularity as well as its multilingualism—Nigerian-produced films feature local languages and English—the driving force of its export sales.
“Nigeria cinema is doing well now,” says Ukadike. “People can identify with these characters. Part of playing these roles is to be convincing because its part of their [Africans] lives. Her [Mandela] story is going to be told from a non-African point of view. The historical perspective will be downplayed.”
Freeman said, while promoting the movie “Invictus” in Johannesburg, there is something discriminatory about foreign actors cast in ethnic roles when local actors are available. But, he cautioned, producers wouldn’t get the international funding if local actors were cast in leading roles.
“I must say I’m not in agreement with hiring someone [international] to play a local role,” says Freeman, who was chosen by Mandela to portray him in the movie. “I understand the need for it, though.”
Freeman goes on to say that “if you got a local to play Winnie, who would you sell it to outside of South Africa? That’s what they [filmmakers] go on. If you have Jennifer Hudson, you could go to a bank and say, ‘we need $40 million dollars to make the movie.’
But, based on past productions the money doesn’t get returned because movies on Africa that feature American casts tend to flop at the box office, says Kenyan actor Lenny Juma.
“Look at the “Maneaters Of Tsavo,” it was shot in South Africa with American casts and it was such a flop because only an African can pull off things like accents, emotions and other aspects.” he says.
Roodt said that despite local actors not getting a headlining role the production would still create 500 job opportunities for South African actors.
Carole Gerster, author of “Teaching Ethnic Diversity in Film” (McFarland 2006), said there are more advantages to having a local actor play a role centered around a country.
“African actors in lead roles could no doubt bring more to films about African issues and African history than African-American actors in the same roles, she says. “African actors can be true to their own understandings of historical figures and events that continue to define them and their countries.”
No matter what the genre—action, romance, or thriller—movies offer a glimpse into a reality that we can identify with, because of actors ability to convey emotions that bring the story to life. Films like “Sarafina” and “Tsotsi” jump off the screen and into the minds of viewers because the actors exemplified the authenticity of the story.