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Mandela movie 'Long Walk To Freedom' gets South Africa premiere

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From Arwa Damon and Teo Kermeliotis

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- It was decades in the making but the long-awaited film based on Nelson Mandela's autobiography is finally here.

Starring British actor Idris Elba as the beloved South African icon, "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" had its South African premiere Sunday in a buzzing Johannesburg cinema.

"During the preparation for 'Mandela,' I was very nervous about my abilities, my capabilities as an actor," Elba told CNN.

"But then it came to me as I was playing a 70-year-old man (that) if you put your mind on something you can actually do it," added Elba, famous for his role as a drug kingpin in U.S. TV series "The Wire."

Mandela, 95, did not attend the premiere as he remains in critical but stable condition in his Johannesburg home, where he is being looked after by a team of military doctors.

Yet relatives, friends and former freedom fighters all joined the movie's cast and crew in what was an exciting and emotional gathering.

"It's going to evoke a lot of sad memories for me," Ndileka Mandela, the former President's granddaughter, said at the red carpet before the film's screening. "His incarceration was not a good time for me as his grandchild and for the family as a whole."

Based on Mandela's autobiography, also called "Long Walk to Freedom," the biopic follows Mandela's life journey from his childhood growing up in a rural village, through the anti-apartheid struggle and prison years, to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

The film's producer, South African Anant Singh, says he first started corresponding with Mandela about the movie's rights when the iconic leader was still behind bars.

"It began almost 25 years ago to try and get this story and to bring it to the big screen," Singh told CNN earlier this year. "I have letters in his handwriting modestly saying, 'will people actually want to see a film about my life?'"

Singh announced Tuesday that the film will be screened at the White House on November 7.

"It is an exceptional honor to have the film screening hosted by President Obama at the White House as it is the first for a South African film," said the movie producer. "It is also of special significance as it connects Madiba and President Obama as statesmen who were responsible for major paradigm shifts in their respective countries and who have special places in the hearts of their people."

The movie is directed by Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl," "The First Grader") and also features fellow Briton Naomie Harris ("Skyfall") as Mandela's second wife, Winnie.

"This is the biggest film ever to be made in South Africa," added Singh. "We have two foreign actors and the (other) 143 are all South African. What we've tried to do is make a South African film and make in a way that it can engage audiences everywhere."

"Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" will be released in South Africa on November 28 and one day later it will premiere in in New York and Los Angeles.

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