To quote the eccentric visionary and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: ‘A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’ He could not have been more right. In our entire miserable existence most of us mere mortals could not have dreamed of the smart devices and innovative gadgets that were designed or invented by Jobs (his team at Next and Apple) and creative geniuses like him. Before the invention of smartphones, computers and so on none of us needed these devices or knew that we needed them and today it is hard to imagine our lives without them.
I make the point above to try and counter the silly argument that has been going on for quite some time now about international stars being preferred over local, talented South African actors to tell a South African story. I mean, logically speaking, who is better equipped to narrate a South African story? The argument goes this way: international film stars are almost guaranteed to attract a large audience. Yes, there might be a point there. Consumers are notorious for opting for a brand they are familiar with-the tried and tested brand if so to speak-instead of something that is new, fresh and they had never seen before. The same is true for film enthusiasts who fall under the category of consumers. They would rather choose to go and see a movie by Angelina Jolie than the one by Nthati Moshoesh despite the former being a lousy, mediocre, overrated actor. Our attitude towards change is indirectly an indictment on our intellectual capacity as consumers and as a people in general. Now that the point has been made that international (read Hollywood) megastars are likely to appeal to a large audience and it has been ramped down our throats for decades now, I cannot help but have a question or two. So when are South African actors going to be granted a chance to tell their own stories? The answer might be: after the South African film industry has grown. And when is that?
Let me guess: the answer is after a few years. So until then South African actors should take a back seat and watch the big shots from Hollywood butcher our stories. Frankly I do not think that Americans will appreciate it should a Luthuli Dlamini, Fana Mokoena, S’dumo Mtshali or Ronnie Nyakale leave South Africa to play the role of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr or Medgar Evers when there are Americans there, who are qualified if I might add, to portray these titans of human rights; and it would make sense. They lack the cultural background necessary to fit in those roles, and yet we have seen numerous ‘international stars’ flocking to our shores to tell our stories only to do a terrible job. One man who has been a serial victim of ‘international stars’ doing shoddy work trying to play him is the nation’s hero, one of Africa favourite sons the late Tata Nelson Mandela. If portraying Tata in a movie or a television series somehow grants one access to the imaginary heaven of Christians then the likes of Terrence Howard, Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier are guaranteed seats in paradise’s V.I.P lounge. Do not get me wrong, these gentlemen that I mention here are some of the finest actors to ever walk this troubled planet but when it came to playing the old man, unfortunately they pissed on our stories. Their atrocious acting in playing Tata is perhaps on par with some of the Generations actors that Mfundi Vundla has recently decided to boot out of his soap opera. How some of these booted stars came to be called actors is an enormous task that would require a PhD.
But again, dear reader, as usual I digress. Pardon me for leaving you hanging. Now back to the issue at hand. Late last year after the sad departure and dignified burial of Tata Nelson Mandela I decided to go to the cinema to see Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, a biopic based on Madiba’s bestselling autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, perhaps to find closure, with a hope of seeing that monumental life portrayed once again on film perhaps with better care this time around-and I was utterly disappointed-and certainly to say goodbye one more time. Obviously the leading actors were foreigners and they hailed from Britain and not America as we are used to. Idris Elba took the role of Madiba and Naomi Harris that of the Mother of the Nation Mama Nomzamo Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela. To this day I am still to forgive Idris Elba for his appalling display of the great man on the big screen, and in particular for butchering Isixhosa; a clear sign that he was not comfortable in the role despite him being a reputable actor. Naomi Harris tried her level best to own the character of Winnie but it kept slipping away from her like a bar soap in a bath tub. And the improvised accents, sigh. To be honest the picture, at least in my opinion, was average and the acting from these so called ‘megastars’ was mediocre. If Hollywood actors are going to come here then they should come on our terms, otherwise let them stay there.
Storytelling is part of a nation’s heritage; it is part of history and it is important that that particular part of history be treated like a fragile glass and be told accurately. Remember the saying: ‘History is a great teacher’. Films are part of history that will help future generations understand themselves better and know where they come from. And if we are serious about growing the South African film industry and preserving our heritage, it makes perfect sense that we do that through investing in our own talent. As Jobs correctly observes, people do not know what they want until you show it to them. The best way to market the South African films is to market them with South African actors and not foreigners who are paid huge amounts of money only to disappoint; otherwise what is the point? It is natural that the world’s reaction might be initially lukewarm to our products but if we show confidence in our own artists and stories then it is inevitable that they will warm up to them. No one is going to buy a product that they never seen. Hollywood is where it is today because they believed they could be the best. Why can’t we do the same? Kgotsong!