Freeman: How I Got to Play the Hero

An actor recalls the moment Nelson Mandela changed his life

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Keith Bernstein

Freeman and Mandela during the filming of Invictus

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, we have a chance to put the idea of a true hero in perspective. Actually, calling Mandela a hero falls woefully short in adequately portraying the man who fought apartheid, was sent to prison for 27 years, was freed from the living hell of unjust confinement, became South Africa’s first democratically elected President and changed the political landscape of his country.

How many of us could have done what he did upon his release? How many of us could have sworn off vengeance and preached reconciliation? How many of us could have turned the final chapters of our own life into a new beginning for our nation’s people?

Madiba, as his friends called him, and I became friends back in the 1990s when, during a press conference, he was asked whom he would want to portray him in a film. To my everlasting honor, he mentioned me, and thus began our 20-year relationship. I got to walk with him, talk with him, hold his hand and get to know one of the greatest men who ever lived. Nearly 20 years after our first meeting, my company Revelations had the unique pleasure of developing and producing the film Invictus, with me in the role of Mandela. Consistent with the true content of his character, his only comment after we first screened the movie for him was a humble, “Now perhaps people will remember me.”

He dedicated his life to a singular cause, a quest to free the black population of his homeland. In accomplishing that, he freed South Africa’s white population and freed an entire nation. And in freeing a nation, he changed the entire world.

We have lost one of the true giants of the past century. But in our loss is the realization that thanks to him, we have all gained something. For in bringing down the evil of apartheid, Mandela raised us up; his wisdom, patience, compassion and insistence on reconciliation make us aspire to be better people. In his determination to break from the chains of the past, he allowed us all to join him as the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.

Madiba’s journey may be over, but his legacy lives on in all of us.