Nelson Mandela was still in a South African prison in 1989 when film producer Anant Singh sent word that he wanted to do a movie about his life. The political prisoner's response through an intermediary summed up Mandela's modest outlook.
"(Mandela) didn't feel that something about him should be made," Singh recalls. "He said, 'Will anyone want to see a movie about my life?' "
The answer to that question was a resounding "yes." Mandela, who died Thursday in his native country at age 95, has been portrayed by icons from Morgan Freeman (2009's Invictus) to Sidney Poitier (Showtime's Mandela and de Klerk from 1997). But the 95-year-old international hero, who spent 27 years in prison before becoming president of South Africa, gets his most profound screen treatment with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The biopic, starring Idris Elba in the title role and Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie, opened wide Nov. 29 after making the rounds of film festivals this fall.
Even though Mandela eventually supported the project, it took Singh and a team of filmmakers more than 19 years to bring it to screens worldwide.
"It's been well worth the wait," Singh says. "It's made the film better that we have gone through as much as we have."
As a third generation South African of Indian descent, Singh was classified as "non-white" in the country's apartheid system of racial segregation and was part of the struggle against it. In 1986, he produced the anti-apartheid film Place of Weeping (now called A Place for Weeping) for $10,000 "while on the run from police and the authorities." The political musical Sarafina! would follow in 1992 and Cry, the Beloved Country in 1995.
"This was an important thing for Mr. Mandela to have been aware of my journey in South Africa and having grown up in apartheid," says Singh, 57. "My work as a young activist making anti-apartheid movies is where it all starts."
The producer found himself at a surprise meeting with Mandela just two weeks after the leader was released from prison in 1990, and the two started a friendship. When Mandela was working on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he showed Singh the early manuscripts. In the bidding war for movie rights that followed the book's publication in 1994, Mandela awarded them to Singh.
"There was fierce competition from major studios," Singh says. "But Mr. Mandela was very generous, and he wanted a South African to do it. He chose me. As a South African, the honor of having the rights is one thing. But with it comes huge responsibility."
Singh approached the task cautiously, from securing the $25 million to make the film and maintain creative control, to finding the right actors and screenplay. Mandela's long, event-filled life easily could have been a miniseries of 10 to 12 hours in Singh's eyes.
"We went through 50 drafts of screenplays, several writers, several directors," he says.
Through the wait, Mandela maintained a hands-off stand toward the film.
"He said to me when he granted me the film rights, 'I trust you. Don't bother me,' " Singh says. "In all of this time, he has never given me any pressure. It was never like, 'You have to do it by this time.' It was all about, 'Do it when you feel it's right.' He was very patient."
Zindzi Mandela, one of Nelson's six children, recalls that there sometimes were unasked questions as the years went by. But Singh was like a trusted family member.
"There was a logic that if my father trusted him with this story, then we should just be patient and wait," she says. "There is the philosophy that things don't necessarily happen in my time. But everything happens in God's time. Anant Singh was not in a rush for box-office success. This was a mission of love for him and a commitment to South African history, particularly my father's."
The actors eyed to play the title role changed. In the early days, Singh floated the idea of Poitier. Mandela's humble response "was that (Poitier) was such a big star.''
In later years, Freeman was discussed. But when the team was finally assembled with director Justin Chadwick, the screenplay by William Nicholson extensively covered Mandela as a young man. English-born Elba, 41, had the right age and demeanor to carry off the role, while Harris, 37, was brought in as Winnie Mandela.
The physical similarities between the actors and their real-life counterparts were not exact, but that was no concern.
"We were not looking to do a look-alike version of the Mandela story. That wasn't important, that we have the same nose and eyes," Harris says. "It's about getting the essence, because what people will connect with is the emotional truth of the character. Have you really captured the spirit, heart and soul?"
For Harris, the chore was additionally tough since Winnie is such a polarizing figure whose story arc travels from innocent young woman to embittered revolutionary at odds with her husband. (They divorced after Nelson was released from prison.)
"I wanted to give her a fair hearing - up to this point, she hasn't really had it," Harris says. "People want to make her into Mother Africa and sanctify her, or they want to demonize her. And we are all much more complex than that."
Chadwick, who did a year of research before starting preproduction, believed that telling the love saga of Winnie and Nelson was the "key that unlocked" the central story. Also key was showing Mandela as a very charming womanizer in his early years, rather than a sanitized version of his history.
"To see him flawed and the mistakes he made as a young man, that felt important," Chadwick says. "That was part of this extraordinary story."
A year ago, Singh played unedited film clips for Mandela from his personal computer. When Elba appeared as the older version of Mandela, the real statesman cracked a smile.
"He looked at me and said, 'Is that me?' " Singh recalls. "It was that sense of humor he has."
Because of his health issues, Mandela had not seen the completed film at the time of his death. Singh is convinced, though, that his subject "was happy with what I have created with a great team of people."
Zindzi Mandela calls it "an authentic depiction of both of my parents."
"It just makes him that much more human and less iconic," she says. "For such a long time, he wanted to be seen as an ordinary man who may have achieved extraordinary things."
Especially compelling for Harris was the November premiere in South Africa. It was far quieter than the world premiere at September's Toronto Film Festival, where the movie received a rousing standing ovation.
"In South Africa, there was compete silence," Harris says. "I thought they were not enjoying it. But afterward, I realized Winnie (Mandela) was in tears and a niece from the Mandela family was sobbing into my arms. I realized they were processing it in such a deep and profound level. Because for them, it's not just a period of history. This is their lives being represented on-screen."