NEW YORK - With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the sweeping biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" transforms in the midst of its theatrical release from a living tribute to a big-screen eulogy.
The South African revolutionary and former president, who died Thursday at age 95, has long been a compelling figure for movies - a hero of uncommon dignity whose dramatic story and titanic accomplishments ensured his tale would be told often in film.
But arguably the fullest movie portrait of Mandela's life - a film made with his permission and his family's support - was released just seven days before his death.
News of Mandela's death broke as "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" played during its London premiere, where Mandela's daughters Zindzi and Zenani were in attendance. A spokesman with the film said the daughters requested that the film continue, though they immediately left the theater. Producer Anant Singh, who has spent more than a decade trying to get the film made, called for a moment of silence at the film's end.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" opened in a limited release of four theaters in the U.S. on Thanksgiving. When the film opens wide on Christmas, it's sure to draw larger crowds moved to remember Mandela. The Weinstein Co.'s challenge is to not appear to be capitalizing on Mandela's passing but celebrating his life.
A publicist for the Weinstein Co. said the film's release schedule won't be changed but declined to say if the movie's marketing would be altered.
Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., is renowned for his promotional gusto. He's pushing the film for awards recognition, which hasn't yet developed in early prizes. But sentiment could flow toward "Mandela: Long Ride to Freedom" following Mandela's death as voting for the Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards kicks in over the next two months.
"One of the privileges of making movies is having the opportunity to immortalize those who have made a profound impact on humanity," Weinstein said in a statement. "We count ourselves unspeakably fortunate to have been immersed in Nelson Mandela's story and legacy. It's been an honor to have been granted such proximity to a man who will go down as one of history's greatest freedom fighters and advocates for justice."
Mandela has been played by Danny Glover in the 1987 TV film "Mandela" (it aired while Mandela was still imprisoned), Sidney Poitier in the 1997 TV film "Mandela and De Klerk," Dennis Haysbert in 2007's "Goodbye Bafana," Morgan Freeman in 2009's "Invictus" and Terrence Howard in the recently released "Winnie Mandela."
Idris Elba stars as Mandela in British director Justin Chadwick's "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," a traditional biopic that emphasizes a young, forceful Mandela. On first seeing Elba, whose frame is considerably larger than Mandela's, in a scene from the film, Singh has said Mandela remarked, "Is that me?"
With Mandela ailing in recent years, Elba was unable to meet with him. "I only feel honored to be associated with him," the actor said in a statement.
The film has screened for dignitaries around the world, including for President Barack Obama in the White House. It's already a hit in South Africa, where it set a box-office debut record, earning $427,000 in its opening week.