A Hollywood biography of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former South Africa’s first lady, set for shooting next year may come a cropper after the country’s actors’ union protested the use of foreigners.
The Creative Workers Union of South Africa has particularly taken issue with the fact that American Oscar winner actress and singer Jennifer Hudson was cast to portray the former first lady.
Its members insist a local actress should have been cast as the title character in a movie important to the country’s history.
Oupa Lebogo, the union’s secretary general, is even threatening to boycott the picture if Hudson’s casting is not reconsidered.
“This decision must be reversed, it must be stopped now. If the matter doesn’t come up for a discussion, we will push for a moratorium to be placed on the film,” Lebogo is reported saying in the South African media.
The protesters also argue Hudson’s inclusion in the film project will hinder the development of South Africa’s movie industry.
The union’s president Mabutho Sithole told The Citizen newspaper, “It can’t happen that we want to develop our own Hollywood and yet bring in imports.”
Hudson was delighted to land the leading role, saying she felt honoured to be asked to portray a “complex and extraordinary woman”.
“I was compelled and moved when I read the script... This is a powerful part of history that should be told,” she is reported as saying.
Hudson came to prominence in 2004 as one of the finalists on the third season of American Idol. She made her film debut in the 2006 film Dreamgirls and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, as well as a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, among many others.
She won a Grammy Award for her self titled debut album which was released in 2008 and was certified gold. Production of the film, directed by South African Darrell Roodt, is set to begin on May 30 in Johannesburg, Cape Town and the Transkei and on Robben Island.
“We can’t allow this to happen. We have people who can play the role far better than Jennifer,” Lebogo said.
He said the move was a way of heeding President Jacob Zuma’s call, at a meeting with the creative industry last month, to speak with one voice.
The protests have been backed by Kenyan acting legend Lenny Juma who has appeared in major Hollywood blockbusters like Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life in 2003, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Young Indiana Jones and Phantom Train of Doom among others.
Juma, who is also a casting agent, hopes such protest spread across Africa if the continent’s movie industry is to grow.
“Jennifer Hudson cannot and will not bring out the same kind of emotions as a South African or even an African actress and there will be so many gaps in the story,” he said.
Juma says Hollywood has a low opinion on African actors and that is why they bypass them whenever they have a big movie even from the continent.
“They do not think we have good actors,” he says. “I was the casting director of the Kimani Maruge story which was being done worldwide and at some point there were many suggesting we approach Morgan Freeman. Luckily we were able to get a very able Kenyan who will pull it off with a lot of ease.”
Juma says that Hollywood behaves the way it does because its movies are targeted at the American market and not Africa.
“They make their money from America and not Africa. That’s why they can afford to treat us the way they do. It is their money and their film but we still have to show that these are our stories they are shooting and we need to be apart of,” he says.
But most of the movies on Africa that have American casts, says Juma, have flopped in the box office because they lack authenticity.
“Look at the Man Eaters 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.
But he does not see an end to what he considers Hollywood bullying due to a lack of support locally.
“Look at Kenya, our own stations content is not local,” says Juma. “If a station would pay an actor Sh100,000 per month, then this same actor won’t allow a Hollywood producer to pay him Sh20,000. We do not have a market for our talent and so we cannot afford to form a union because there is no market to fight for.”
South African film director Anant Singh said he understood the anxiety of the industry about foreigners.
“From a creative point of view we have a great wealth of talent locally. However, it’s very difficult to prescribe how a movie should be made. There are commercial imperatives and if you want a movie to be made you have to do it a certain way. It’s all about balance,” he told The Times Live.
“The integrity of the South African film industry can be maintained. Look at Sarafina. I had [American actress] Whoopi Goldberg, but I also had Leleti Khumalo playing a leading role.”
Actress Florence Masebe said the issue was far bigger than “Winnie and Jennifer”.
“Why do Americans and foreigners play the roles we hold so dear? The roles of people we respect. I don’t think (anyone but a South African) can even begin to understand what we mean when we say Winnie is the mother of the nation.
“The industry doesn’t take us seriously, producers don’t take us seriously. At what point are we going to see that this is so wrong?” she asked.
Ironically, the union has not said anything about Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, Invictus, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela played by acting legend Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
But in a surprising development, the South African protests have won the backing of Morgan Freeman.
“There’s something discriminatory about it,” Freeman said in Johannesburg this week as he was promoting Invictus.
“In the old days of American cinema, somebody black was played by somebody white in black face – or not even in black face. For instance, Ava Gardner played a black woman in Show Boat  when they had Lena Horne, the perfect choice,” he told Globe and Mail.
It’s not “the best idea” to have outsiders cast as members of an ethnic group when there are others available, he said.
“I don’t think, as a rule, it works. Get that person to play them, because No. 1, they’re going to do a better job. I am one who really believes that you should play you.”
Asked to justify his own casting as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, Freeman pointed out it was Mandela himself who had suggested that he play him in a movie.
“I get a pass because I am the anointed one,” he said.