Back off, Hollywood

Posted by · 10:39 am · December 8th, 2009

Jennifer HudsonWhile South Africa’s currently high Hollywood profile is putting smiles on the faces (and much-needed cash in the pockets) of many figures in the country’s film industry, it appears that not all local actors are as pleased.

The Guardian reports that a number of prominent local thesps have spoken out against the casting of bankable American stars in plum South African parts — most notably Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” and Jennifer Hudson as his ex-wife Winnie in a separate biopic:

Oupa Lebogo, general secretary of the CWU [Creative Workers’ Union], said of Hudson’s casting, announced last month: “This decision must be reversed, it must be stopped now. If the matter doesn’t come up for discussion, we will push for a moratorium to be placed on the film being cast in South Africa. We are being undermined, there is no respect at all … We can’t allow this to happen. We have people who can play the role far better than Jennifer.”

The award-winning actor John Kani said Freeman had asked him how he felt about an African-African playing the former president. He said he understood the economics but lamented the fact that “I wasn’t even asked”.

(I omit the quote where actress Florence Masebe laments the fact that Hudson is playing “the mother of our nation,” because anyone who regards Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as such shouldn’t be taken seriously.)

It’s hardly a new complaint: heckles were raised when Juliette Binoche was cast in “Country of My Skull,” James Earl Jones in “Cry, the Beloved Country,” Whoopi Goldberg in “Sarafina!” and so on. And as I said when I reported on Hudson’s casting, I sympathize to an extent with such concerns: a gifted South African actress like Leleti Khumalo would do at least as fine a job as Hudson in the part, and deserves such an opportunity to shine.

But in the real world, Hollywood productions inevitably need star names to get off the ground — and it’s probably better that these stories get told with international involvement than not at all.

For what irks me most about such whinging is the passivity on display. The existence of a Hollywood-made Mandela biopic doesn’t immediately cancel the possibility of a South African take on a story with local talent at the forefront — but it’s idle to blame Hollywood for South African producers’ lack of initiative in this regard.

Of course, one can point to the success of “District 9,” with its all-South African cast and untested leading man, to suggest that star casting isn’t essential to crossover success — though that film had a tight story hook and Peter Jackson’s name on the poster to pull in the punters.

I’m reminded of something South African actress Jessica Haines, whom I interviewed the other day about her role in “Disgrace,” said about the film’s international casting — which left her as the film’s only South African principal, amid American, Australian and French co-stars. “Of course they needed John [Malkovich] to secure financing,” she said pragmatically, “but their first concern was getting the best actors they could find — South African, American, whatever. And John is one of the best.”

Let’s hope Jennifer Hudson’s eventual performance merits a similarly practical response.

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

17 responses so far

  • 1 12-08-2009 at 11:03 am

    Ryan said...

    Hopefully criticism like this will push Hudson to try her best in the role.

    It is not a very surprising tactic, Hollywood has been doing this for ages. I like the idea of South Africa doing their own biopic!

  • 2 12-08-2009 at 11:23 am

    aspect ratio said...

    I think the film with Clint Eastwood at the helm but with local actors would’ve been a far better choice, more honest and less TV-movie of the Week.

    He did it with Letters from Iwo Jima after all, and that was probably his best film this decade.

  • 3 12-08-2009 at 11:28 am

    Morgan said...

    I don’t think it’s possible to make a successful movie without stars in them.

    Either the actors are stars that everyone already knows about, or the actors are stars that nobody knows about yet. Clearly “District 9” was the latter case.

  • 4 12-08-2009 at 11:31 am

    aspect ratio said...

    Of course there’s the argument that big name stars bring people into the theaters to see the film, and without them there’s no way it’d make as much.. But on the other hand, having big name stars adds quite a lot to a budget too.

    In fact, I did a quick search and came across a Hollywood Reporter article that suggested it had a budget of $60m. Compare that to Letters of Iwo Jima’s $19m budget, and that was a much larger scope kind of film!

  • 5 12-08-2009 at 11:49 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    They could have chosen a star who isn’t a terrible actress.

  • 6 12-08-2009 at 12:09 pm

    Al said...

    While it may not be seen as right, there really isn’t anything they can do about it. Anyone who makes a film can cast anyone they want. Unless you work for Chavez, Hugowood is not a pleasant place….

  • 7 12-08-2009 at 12:50 pm

    Mike said...

    “I wasn’t even asked”
    God, what an ego.

  • 8 12-08-2009 at 1:08 pm

    Benito Delicias said...

    They shouldn’t try to put the blame on the people who at least are trying to make something. And not even for money because this story and Jennifer Hudson as a star can’t be an easy sell either. Neither one screams box office…

    District 9 was a huge hit because of the type of movie it was and because, well, it was awesome.

    If they feel confident enough with a good story and a good African actress then go right ahead…it happened for Slumdog which had zero stars, almost all of them from India, none of them with much experience (some with none) and an English director that meant nothing to about 90% of the people that saw it.

    Sure awards helped, but it could have made some money on its own too.

  • 9 12-08-2009 at 2:07 pm

    Pablo (Col) said...

    I dont know why South Africa feels so shocked. Hollywood has been always known to prefer American actors rather than local people. It’s the same thing as the Hollywood stereotypes that, despite being in 2009, have not come to a stop. The innocent chinese girl, the smart japanese, the violent latino, the colombian drug dealer, the sexy puerto rican and so on.

    Hollywood prefer to stay safe and not to risk box office.

  • 10 12-08-2009 at 2:31 pm

    Mike said...

    I think Jennifer will suprise everyone with this performance. I hope she does anyway. If all goes according to plan, it is hard to imagine her not being a strong contender for Best Actress.

  • 11 12-08-2009 at 2:50 pm

    Maxim said...

    I think in the case of someone like Jennifer Hudson a name director would be a bigger draw anyway.

    All that aside, I can’t argue that a completely self made South African project would be more interesting. Assuming it’s not too biased.

  • 12 12-08-2009 at 3:56 pm

    Carson Dyle said...

    Considering the fact that Mandela wanted Freeman to play him (I believe, anyway), I think all the bitching about that particular bit of casting is moot.

  • 13 12-08-2009 at 4:12 pm

    Patricia said...

    I have South African relatives and know that S. Africa has a thriving, and growing, film industry. I’m an American and yet I feel insulted on behalf of S. Africans because of the casting of Invictus. I’m told they used S. African crew and extras. Big hairy deal. But, I guess it’s baby steps. The Bang, Bang Club is coming out next year. It’s also a story out of S. Africa. It too has American/Candadian actors but also S. Africans. It is directed and scripted by S. Africans and is a Canadian/South African production.

  • 14 12-08-2009 at 5:48 pm

    Matthew Lucas said...

    Mandela did indeed tell Freeman he wanted him to play him if ever a movie was made about his life. That trumps everything

  • 15 12-08-2009 at 11:36 pm

    Pieterk said...

    As a South African, I am thrilled to see films reflecting our country. Don’t really care about preferential casting as long as the final product is a good story, well told. A local Afrikaans girl is playing the wife of Matt Damon in Invictus, so Hollywood does give our countrymen some exposure. It is all baby steps. But we are getting there.

  • 16 12-09-2009 at 1:38 am

    Glenn said...

    Considering how many people saw “Yesterday” or “uCarmen” I think this needed a known actor in order to secure American funding/distribution. You just need to look at the lack of foreign titles receiving American distribution to prove that.

  • 17 12-09-2009 at 2:40 pm

    Nick Plowman said...

    I don’t really care who they cast, but for the love of God, please can they hire decent accent coaches. The accents in Invictus were distracting for me, to say the least.