The actor who played a brainy gangster in The Wire could, in a new film, change how we think about South Africa's greatest leader.

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Left, a young Mandela. Right, Elba as Stringer Bell. / Wikimedia, HBO

The name Nelson Mandela has become so golden that a feud between the 94-year-old's many apostles, over whether or not he would attend the 2010 World Cup opening, became a brief national scandal. TV stations are already bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to cover his funeral. He is more than a living legend; to speak for Mandela is like carrying the stone tablets down from Mount Sinai. School children all over the world learn his name and his quest to end Apartheid. The last three U.S. presidents -- the most powerful individuals in the world -- have all courted Madiba, as Bill Clinton lovingly calls him.

Nelson Mandela has been portrayed on film by some of America's most august actors: Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier, and Terrence Howard. Now, according to rumors circulating in the South African and British press, Mandela will be played by Idris Elba, best known for his portrayal of Machiavellian mobster Stringer Bell in The Wire, HBO's acclaimed series about drug crime in Baltimore. It's a surprising choice but, if it's true, the things that make it surprising could be precisely what make Elba a good choice to portray Mandela.

The British actor and his now-famous American character seem entirely at odds with the Gandhian, grandfatherly Mandela that the world loves and sometimes worships: young, tough, emotionally complicated, intelligent, and maybe a little hotheaded. That's not the Mandela we know, but we should. The public perception of Mandela as a Gandhi-like figure who promoted non-violent resistance to white rule and helped end Apartheid is true, and the global adoration is deserved and important. But that's only one part of Mandela's life. Both the man and the legacy are more complicated, and look just a touch more like Stringer Bell than we might realize -- or want to acknowledge.

In 1961, an angry and desperate Nelson Mandela helped found a paramilitary group called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or "Spear of the Nation." He was 42 years old (Idris Elba is now 39) and his nonviolent, Gandhi-inspired activism against the brutally racist Apartheid regime was not succeeding. A year earlier, white police had shot and killed 69 protesters in Sharpeville. "We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy," Mandela said at his trial three years later. Peaceful efforts had failed, he said; "only then we decide to answer violence with violence" against the state. "The violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism," he insisted, but both Mandela and Umkhonto we Sizwe were internationally condemned as terrorists. Mandela later said of the communist and militant Wolfie Kodesh, "His knowledge of warfare and his first hand battle experience were extremely helpful to me."

If Mandela's "Spear of the Nation" wasn't a terrorist group, it was certainly a guerrilla army. It attacked what Mandela called "the symbolic places of apartheid" and sabotaged state buildings and infrastructure. Though he urged against killing, his activism and language infused an ideology of violent resistance into the group. In the years after Mandela was imprisoned in 1964, Umkhonto we Sizwe became increasingly violent. By the 1980s, it had begun torturing and sometimes executing its prisoners. It set off car bombs in public places and even installed land mines on some rural roads. 

His then-wife, Winnie, encouraged some of the anti-Apartheid movement's most horrific acts of violence: "necklacing," the practice of draping a tire over your victim's shoulders, dousing it with lighter fluid, and lighting it for a horrific and painful death. In 1988, her personal bodyguard kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy who was accused of informing on the movement; Winnie was later convicted of ordering the act.

Mandela wasn't involved in any of these incidents, nor did he order them, but he had helped start the group and its violent ideology. He later renounced violence and, when he was finally released from prison in 1990, organized peaceful reconciliation between the country's racial groups, one of the most important moments of peacemaking in a century soaked in ethnic conflict. Still, Mandela was once a soldier in that conflict. But his transformation into a Gandhian leader is all the more remarkable for it.

Mandela is a complicated figure, like so many national leaders, and he struggled with his cause and with himself. Though we are accustomed to thinking of him more like the kindly old man portrayed by Morgan Freeman, or as the unassailable hero beloved by Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela is also a human being. Like all of us, he has a dark side, and so did his movement to end Apartheid. If the coming film and portrayal by Idris Elba can help us understand that, can introduce a little more Stringer Bell into the Madiba legacy, then we will all have a better understanding of one of modern Africa's most important stories and of the strength it takes to choose nonviolence.

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