The Men Who Would Be the King

The Men Who Would Be the King

By Eugene S. Robinson

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela


Because if playing Mandela was easy every Tom, Dick and Adam Sandler would be giving it a try.

By Eugene S. Robinson

When things are truly great and good, there’s commonly an urge to communicate their greatness and goodness to just about anyone who’ll listen.

Be they great games, people, performances or places, they all evoke a very human need to take a “my god, did you see that?” moment and frame it as something that can be recalled, revisited and rerun as often as your needs for amazement allow.

The larger the character is in real life, the greater the desire is to depict him or her in reel life.

Which is what movies do exceedingly well.

And the degree to which they succeed is the degree to which they can convince us to suspend our disbelief long enough to see the great thing through fresh eyes. So it’s not surprising that the larger the character is in real life, the greater the desire is to depict him or her in reel life. Typically though? Results are well mixed since it’s much harder to act great than it is to actually be great. 

How hard? In movie after movie, 11 at last count, a variety of talents great and not-as-great have tried their hand at capturing the ineffable essence that made Nelson Mandela dramatically significant. So forthwith? Our breakdown of how the top five of the field fared.




Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier, SIR Sidney Poitier no less, was pretty faboo over the course of more than 50 films, some ground-breakingly noteworthy in their own right. This former son of a dirt farmer, the Miami-born Bahamian actor’s quiet dignity and modest start seems to have made him a shoe-in for portraying Mandela. Which, in 1997’s TV movie Mandela and de Klerk, he did do. Reviews were generally decent (which really means “so-so”), but this production uncovered the essential truth of portraying a terrestrial saint: unless you do it with hand puppets, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to say that your portrait lacked depth even if it did (and it did). They’re going to clap politely because, well, it’s Sidney, man. Doing MANDELA. But in the end, Poitier’s take on Mandela with Sir Michael ”In Every Movie Known to Man” Caine was just good enough for a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 60 percent. Those hard-hearted bastards. 

Danny Glover

Danny “I’m Too Old for This Shit” Glover is a fine thespian. And his 1987 film Mandela is notable for the very simple reason that it was made before Mandela was released from prison. If the producers of this film didn’t spend every waking moment later taking credit for his release in a craven PR move worthy of Nikki Finke, well, they should have. The movie came out in the same year that Glover shot to fame in Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson, and after his breakout flick, 1985’s Witness. None of which should have obscured that no matter how hungry and AFTER IT Glover was in this role, his broad, Burt Lancaster-esque treatment of Mandela’s early life did not leave room for the other shades of character in the post-prison president we knew. But it is what it is – a brave attempt at working over one of the hardest roles ever: a great man whose greatness was only partially manifested in the court of public opinion at the time this film’s producers were putting butts in the seats and selling popcorn. Tough job and someone’s done it. Just not as well as the man who originally did it. 

Danny Glover on right as mandela in scene from movie in black and white

Danny Glover in the 1987 movie Mandela

Dennis Haysbert

Oh, god. Look, it’s not that Haysbert himself has, since 2007’s Goodbye Bafana, become known as The Allstate Guy for his running series of commercials for the insurance giant. A guy’s got to eat. No. It’s that the movie, drawn from a book by James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers (Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend), is of a type of Hollywood movie that Hollywood makes often and often makes badly. Essentially a Black great’s story as told through the top-billed eyes of two sets of White characters who in real life were probably a little less significant than the motion picture would have us believe. Gregory’s book was widely dismissed and Mandela only referenced him a few times, albeit in a positive way, but to Hollywood this spelled, “good enough,” apparently. So Haysbert drew the short straw of being dramatic foil to Gregory, played by Joseph Fiennes, as he came to some sort of spiritual awakening. 


Saying Haysbert’s good in this one is like saying he’s the best smelling guy in the onion factory. Which is to say: close to Mandela? Not yet.

Morgan Freeman

Morgan. Freaking. Freeman. Over 106 film credits to his name and fluent in French to boot, Freeman is a man for all seasons. Though his 2009 film Invictus seems like it’d be a Goodbye Bafana-esque excuse to highlight the valiant efforts of South African rugby players and Matt Damon (it is a rugby movie after all), somehow it manages to succeed. But the issue is less the movie, and more whether or not the tall, long and deep-of-field Freeman can cover Mandela. Maybe not so amazingly, he comes almost the closest of any fellow listed thespians to getting the job done. Excepting? Well, he looks nothing at all like Mandela. We’re not asking for a quirk by twitch imitation of the man, but in 2009 the image of Mandela was very well cemented in our minds. Did he capture the emotional truth of Mandela in the historical moment when rugby was used to bridge cultural divides? Sure. And was he more believable than Tom Cruise would have been in the role? Double sure. But then again, so was Dave Chappelle who, yes, it should be remembered, also played Mandela once.

Idris Elba

Idris Elba is coming perilously close to a very special sort of superstardom. He and Daniel Craig are trodding over manly ground previously only reserved for Australian imports (see: Hugh Jackman). Handsome/earthy, delicate/dangerous and elementally masculine American models for this are in short supply in 2013 (and no, Ryan Gosling does not count). And in his 2013 portrayal, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba kills it. Kills it, how? Oscar-consideration kills it. Is it enough to equal or even best The Men on the list? Yes. The Man himself? Oh no. Reacting to the great ice floes of history as they moved on and around you without a real clear understanding of how the history you were making would be framed made the real Mandela’s life endlessly more thrilling than any filmic attempts to capture it. Hats off to Elba for leading the list, but The Man Himself still remains The Man.