There are lots of times when Harvey Weinstein can be accused of leveraging events to help his movies win Oscars.
Nelson Mandela’s death isn’t one of them.
In a coincidence, Mandela – Madiba – happened to die at the very moment that the Weinstein Company’s biographical movie, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” was premiering in London on Thursday.
Mandela’s daughters, Zindzi and Zenani (pictured at premiere with Elba at left), were sitting in the audience. The movie was five minutes away from the credits when secret service agents quietly approached in the dark to let them know their father had passed, according to an individual who was present.
There were tears, strong emotions and mourning. Meanwhile, it is Oscar season, and “Mandela” has always been on the Weinstein’s Company slate to vie for Best Picture.
But the release strategy for the film is not changing. The movie, currently in four theaters, will be rolling out wider to 850 or so theaters on Christmas Day. In an exclusive and tearful interview with TheWrap, Harvey Weinstein said he has resisted suggestions to take the movie wider, sooner because of the news, and refuses to consider tying considerations about the fate of the movie with Mandela’s death.
“This issue is important to me personally,” he told TheWrap . “There are no opportunities. I’m just going to respect the will of the family through Zindzi Mandela.”
Weinstein was wounded by the comment in a New York Times article on Friday that he might have acquired the movie in February with an eye to Mandela being close to his demise.
In fact Weinstein had acquired the rights to make the biopic with producer Anant Singh in 1999, aiming for Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman to star. When that didn’t happen, Singh persevered and produced the film independently with Idris Elba in the title role.
Still, Weinstein looked at footage a year ago, and kept it on his radar before acquiring the film, directed by Justin Chadwick, in February of this year.
Coincidences have happened often in the life of Harvey Weinstein – for instance, “Fruitvale Station” opening just as the Trayvon Martin verdict came down in – but this is surely one he cannot have planned. Indeed, he said Mandela’s daughter told him eight weeks ago that Mandela had taken a turn for the better.
His interest in the apartheid struggle in general and Mandela in particular is nothing new; he made “Sarafina” about the Soweto riots in 1992, and “Cry the Beloved Country” from the Alan Paton novel in 1995.
And he met Mandela in New York after the opposition leader-turned-president’s 1990 release from prison. Mandela came to New York, and met Weinstein, Robert de Niro, Oliver Stone, Eddie Murphy and two dozen others. He talked then about how movies helped sustain him while he was in isolation.
Weinstein spoke to TheWrap from London where it was 1 a.m.; he was tired, sad and frankly hurt.
“I have been so involved in politics of anti-apartheid,” he said. “I will reveal that my father was a soldier in World War II. His buddies told me my dad suffered greatly from anti-Semitism because he was down south in training before he went to active duty in Mediterranean. He had to defend himself.”
At the end of the conversation, Weinstein broke down in tears.
“It’s a movie,” he said. “I’d rather have him alive.”