Invictus, an uplifting, Clint Eastwood-directed sports movie and Nelson Mandela biopic, seems to contain all the ingredients for commercial and critical success. Of course, box-office stars Morgan Freeman (as Mandela) and Matt Damon (as South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar) will give the film extra juice going into Oscar season. But to some critics, the big names came at a cost. The supporting actors native to South Africa—colored, white and black—do the heavy lifting to give the film an authentic sound, while Freeman and Damon wrestled with the signature South African accent. It’s hard to say the verbal bobbles take away from the film, but in honor of their performances, The Root presents a list of the best and worst accents in recent cinematographic memory:
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Freeman is a venerable screen actor, with a litany of memorable performances under his belt. And, as New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller noted, Freeman’s mastery of Mandela’s physical mannerisms makes his performance “less an impersonation than an incarnation.” But despite having spent much time with the freedom-fighting former president, Freeman’s pronunciation—especially on multisyllabic words—leaves something to be desired.
Memorable line: “It is a human calculation.”
Matt Damon in Invictus
Damon is the lesser of two evils here—as his character leans more toward the “strong, silent type.” But as with Freeman, when Damon does speak (urging his teammates to play “seven minutes” more, or “taste defeat”), he is surrounded by native South Africans who make his meticulously practiced Afrikaner dialect fall flat.
Memorable line: “This is our destiny.”
Adam Sandler in The Waterboy
What can we say about the hokey 1998 comedy about a developmentally challenged man who assists a flailing NFL team to glory? Nothing good. Adam Sandler’s idiotic man-child Louisiana accent, however, pushes the film from mere miss to a real disgrace. Memorable line: "No, Colonel Sanders, you’re wrong."
Russell Crowe in American Gangster
The Australian Oscar winner has done a decent job affecting an American accent for films such as The Insider, A Beautiful Mind and State of Play. But for some reason, the tough-talking New York detective he plays in 2007’s American Gangster brings more parody than punch to the table.
Memorable line: "Frank Lucas…transports pure number four heroin into the United States."
Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond
This political thriller about conflict minerals is nothing if not a morality play. One lesson: Hire this guy. Though DiCaprio gives a fine (and Oscar-nominated) performance as Rhodesian mercenary Danny Archer, he continually has trouble pronouncing his character’s own last name in a proper Zimbabwean accent.
Memorable line: "Mukiwa means ‘white boy’ in Africa."
Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The particular cadences of the New Orleans accent are not easy to mimic. But Brad Pitt, in his Oscar-nominated turn as a man living life in reverse, captures the soft drawl of the city from a geriatric growl to a whiny teenager.
Memorable line: “I was born in unusual circumstances.”
Dominic West and Idris Elba in The Wire
It’s hard to believe that two of the lead actors in one of the most highly praised pieces of American urban television drama were born abroad. But Elba and West, who play Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, respectively, are British. While West’s “Bal’more” accent wavers at times both he and Elba expertly capture the vocal rhythms that made The Wire’s dialogue crackle and pop for five seasons.
Memorable line: “It’s about product.”
Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2012
Both of these foreigners make credible performances as American government workers—the Nigerian Ejiofor as a “geologist” who tries (and fails) to save the planet, and the London-born Newton as the president’s daughter. Both survive the apocalypse, and their onscreen hookup may end up keeping the human race alive. Not bad work for expatriates.
Memorable line: “Um, we couldn’t exactly hear what they were saying, what with all the apocalyptic explosions. But whatever they were saying sure sounded American.”
Eamonn Walker in Cadillac Records
Walker rose to stardom as a character on the HBO series Oz, but in Cadillac Records, the actor, who has a mellifluous British accent in real life, took on the part of American singer Howlin’ Wolf with real authenticity. The turn was notable because the Grenadian-Trinidadian was playing not just a southern black man, but a real person.
Memorable line: "Baby, would you stay for a while?"
Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen and Hotel Rwanda
Cheadle gets mixed marks for his dialect work on-screen. As Paul Rusesabagina, hero of the biopic Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle—who has been a vocal critic of genocide in Darfur—was slammed for taking the role away from an African. Nevertheless, he made a decent effort to speak in the real-life Rusesabagina’s soft, clipped tones. Concerned viewers should have saved their cries for Cheadle’s turn as “Basher” in the Stephen Soderbergh-directed trilogy beginning with Ocean’s Eleven. His cockney accent was atrocious.
Memorable line: “Her thief father taught her every trick in the book.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.