Naomie Harris did not score an easy task in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
She was cast as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the wife of South African political prisoner turned president Nelson Mandela, a powerful figure herself in South African politics. To add to the pressure, the movie was slated to hit the film festival circuit as Mandela’s health waned, amid reports that the South African leader has been released from the hospital to return home for his final days.
But with all the pressure of the part, Namoie Harris has earned stellar grades for her role and already helped Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom win some big praise.
The movie is based on Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, showing his fight against apartheid, his 27-year imprisonment, and his subsequent release and rise to presidency. Mandela’s marriage to Madikizela-Mandela plays an important role in the film, showing her as a strong-minded South African politician who led the African National Congress Women’s League.
Naomie Harris has gotten a lot of praise in the role. At the Toronto International Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter awarded Harris and co-star Idris Elba the inaugural Breakthrough in Film Award.
For Naomie Harris, winning the award at the Toronto festival was especially fitting — it was three years ago at TIFF that she landed the role of Winnie.
“So it means so much to be here,” said Harris, who earned a standing ovation after a screening of the film earlier in the day.
The applause may have been nice, but Naomie Harries got an even bigger stamp of approval before the film was released. The producing team brought the film to Nelson Mandela to screen just before he fell ill, earning his approval for the role.
“Mandela actually asked Anant Singh, our producer who showed him the clip, and he said: ‘Is that me?’ ‘ Harris said. “And then when Anant explained that it was Idris but with prosthetics… he started to laugh.”
The movie is a long time coming. Singh wrote to Mandela 26 years ago asking if he could turn the autobiography into a movie. The actual development of the film took 17 years.
Harris said getting the approval of Nelson and Winnie was of the utmost importance.
“It doesn’t bode well for me, and I think for a film, if you portray someone without asking for their blessing in making the film,” she said. “The Mandelas — both Winnie and Mandela, who were asked to sanction the movie — they were very generous about it and they just said, ‘Look, we want you to create the movie faithfully and truthfully, but we’re not going to be involved.’ And they were very hands-off about it.”
Naomie Harris said she even met with Madikizela-Mandela personally, calling it a powerful but intimidating experience.