Naomie Harris Born September 6, 1976. Starred as Selena~28 Days Later, Tia Dalma/Calypso~2nd+3rd Pirates of the Caribbean, Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall and SPECTRE.Winnie Mandela in Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom.Southpaw, Our Kind of Traitor,Moonlight (Oscar Nominee) plus Collateral Beauty and Jungle Book (2018)
Naomie Harris visits the Hlayisanani day care centre in Alexandra Township, South Africa. Photograph: Ilan Godfrey/Save the Children
Busisiwe, 14 and in red school uniform, wants to be an actor one day but is worried she can't sing. "I can't sing either," says British actor Naomie Harris. "My advice would be to get your education first. It's a very difficult profession, very precarious, so you always need another string to your bow."
It's Sunday morning at the Hlayisanani day care centre, originally built on a rubbish dump in Alexandra, the township where Nelson Mandelamade his first Johannesburg home. Within sight of a graveyard and a short distance from a sprawl of shacks, Harris has come to this Save the Children project to witness a new generation of South Africans making art, serenading her and striving to escape harsh circumstances.
On Sunday night she's in the other South Africa, an upmarket suburb where champagne is served before the national premiere of the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which she plays Winnie Madikizela-Mandela opposite fellow British actor Idris Elba. Reviews have been mixed but many observers have noted that, while the film predictably reinforces Mandela's sainted status, it does something more interesting with a narrative arc charting his ex-wife's journey from an apolitical ingénue who adores him to a militant demagogue who defies him.
"Am I the only person who does not like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?" asked Chris Thurman, an academic at Wits University in Johannesburg. "This is a question that I am forced to ask periodically when, against all rational expectation, I find myself isolated in a crowd (actual or virtual) of single-minded Winnie praise-singers. Again and again I raise what seem to me the obvious points: the woman is a convicted crook and kidnapper, not to mention a negligent MP and a generally reckless politician. Each time I do this, I am made to feel guilty for lacking some kind of patriotic fervour that should lead me to celebrate 'the mother of the nation'."
It is a battle of perceptions on which Harris has a unique take, having done an actor's "detective work" to get under Madikizela-Mandela's skin and understand her motivations. "One of the things that I was really struck by was just how disparate and completely polarised the views about her are," she told the Guardian. "Two people at the same event would say she behaved in completely different ways. One biography paints her as literally like devil and another as literally like a saint.
"She's a very difficult woman to capture because she is like seven different people in one and I think because of her experiences as a person she is fractured. Trying to pull all that together was my greatest challenge."
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does not shy away from difficult episodes. At the premiere screening Madikizela-Mandela was confronted with a portrayal of herself whipping up mob justice that leads to "necklacing" – in which a suspected informant has a tyre put around his neck, is doused with petrol and burned alive – and her infidelity that forces Mandela into a humiliating public announcement of their separation. But the film provides a context for her behaviour and Harris's performance holds the audience's sympathy.
Winnie Mandela with her husband, Nelson, after his release from prison in 1990. Photograph: Greg English/AP
The 37-year-old actor, whose previous films include 28 Days Later and Skyfall, continued: "I'm not a spokesperson for Winnie, but really I've got to find a way as an actor to have compassion for the character I'm playing. I was never setting out to justify her actions but I just wanted to show how she became the woman that she became and why she behaved the way that she behaved. Lots of people have said as a result of watching it now they have a greater understanding of her and feel much more warmly towards her."
The movie, adapted from Mandela's autobiography, shows Madikizela-Mandela as a feisty young woman who falls in love with the struggle activist, only to be left to raise their children alone when he is arrested and jailed. Her home is frequently raided, she suffers brutal treatment at the hands of the police, including a long spell in solitary confinement, and is banished to a distant town. She becomes politicised and filled with hatred. In one scene, wearing military fatigues, she is summoned by a dismayed Mandela, who has spent his long imprisonment preparing for a peaceful transition and racial reconciliation. They are now poles apart, politically and emotionally.
Harris, whose portrayal has been endorsed by Madikizela-Mandela herself, says: "When you understand what she went through I think it's very hard to not understand that she's a product of her circumstances, a very particular set of circumstances that it's hard not to have compassion for. I don't think you can criticise anyone without fully knowing the facts and the particular historical circumstances and I think most people who do criticise don't know all the facts.
"When I did my research and interviewed people who knew Winnie and lived through that particular time, they all said they couldn't judge her because of what she went through and they don't know anybody else who could have survived it and have stayed intact. The circumstances she was in were primed to make her seek revenge and be full of anger and be violent. I think they induced that, almost. I don't know how anyone else could react differently in the face of that kind of daily brutality that she suffered."
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2013, still an MP at 77 years old. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS
Madikizela-Mandela remains an MP and is critical of her beloved African National Congress's current leadership. Last week she intervened in a township where protests had disrupted voter registration for next year's national elections. "I get the sense from speaking to her that basically if she was 20 years younger she would still be out there and really pushing for change," Harris says.
"She's 77 now, so some of that fire, understandably, is tempered down as you age but I think she still would like further progress. She's frustrated and understandably so. She's frustrated that change hasn't been quicker and greater and also she talked about the fact she's frustrated that so many people lost their lives in order to ensure that South Africans have their freedom and then now it seems as though that's taken for granted. People often forget the huge sacrifices that people made to get South Africa to the position that's in today."