“According to Mr. Freeman, his mission to portray Mr. Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from the subject himself. At a press conference to promote the publication of his 1994 memoir, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ someone asked Mr. Mandela who should play him in the movie. ‘And he said he wanted me,’ Mr. Freeman recalled….Mr. Freeman sought Mr. Mandela’s blessing, bought the rights [to John Carlin’s book on Mandela] and persuaded Mr. Eastwood to direct.” ~New York Times, 12/06/2009
Once Mandela was transferred to Victor Verster Prison in 1988, his circumstances changed considerably. The hard labor in the lime quarry was a painful but receding memory. He was now allowed guests, and better food and medical attention. With these new comforts came the ability to reflect.
Mandela confessed to his friend Harry Schwarz that he spent many days in solitary reflection. During this time he considered the events of the past three decades, and the trials and tribulations yet to come. There was still much to do, and much about which Mandela was uncertain. The one thing Mandela knew for certain was that Morgan Freeman was the actor to play him in a movie about his life. The other questions were not so easy.
Doubts lingered from the years before his imprisonment. The violence of the African National Congress had been borne out of desperation. But was that the route Morgan Freeman would have chosen? Was there an option Mandela had not considered, a hidden path overlooked? Or did he, like Morgan Freeman in “Unforgiven,” acquiesce to the violent path of an old friend unable to shake his former demons?
Mandela allowed himself a bit of pride in recalling his closing statement at the trial that would send him to prison for 27 years. But how had he delivered it? He could no longer quite recall. He wondered if he had spoken with the distinction and moral gravitas with which Morgan Freeman would deliver those lines. Had he conveyed deep emotion without losing his eloquence, the way Morgan Freeman spoke to those soldiers in “Glory”? Mandela suspected he had, a sliver of vanity which had steeled his resolve during his long imprisonment.
For Mandela, the future was no less certain. It seemed likely that President de Klerk was going to arrange for his release. This meant that, in some not too distant future, Mandela might run for the South African presidency. But the country was still sitting on powderkegs. Any presidential candidate would have to address that danger without appearing to give in to despair. The way Morgan Freeman did as the President in “Deep Impact.”
Would Mandela be able to unify the country? He was not sure. Even if he could achieve progress, could he see South Africa to a brighter future, the way Morgan Freeman guides Tim Robbins’ character to redemption in “The Shawshank Redemption?” Or would the people, white and black, rail at him as an unjust and out-of-touch despot, the way Jim Carrey rails at Morgan Freeman in the first, oh, twenty five minutes or so of “Bruce Almighty”?
Morgan Freeman! Mandela spoke with unnerving candor of the great and wide shadow cast by that timeless actor. Would he be able to walk in his shoes? Could Mandela match the effortless dignity Morgan Freeman would surely summon in playing him? Had Mandela trod a hard but true path the way Morgan Freeman would suggest Nelson Mandela had trod it? In short, was he a good enough man to live a life worthy of Morgan Freeman’s stirring evocation of that life?
These doubts lingered with Mandela as he awaited news of his release.
Author’s note: since writing the above, I have been shown this graphic, which I must tip my hat to as being downright amazing.