Political Football: A Review of Invictus

January 5, 2010, 9:46 am

We are in the last week of our two-month South African adventure. This is the stage of a long trip when the desire to squeeze every last drop out of the experience is in active competition with the urge to just throw away all your filthy clothes, get on a plane and go home. Now.

And at this moment, your favorite Radical got a nasty stomach flu, and was unable to do anything at all.

Except go to the movies, where we saw Invictus. This is the new film directed by Clint Eastwood that stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African national rugby squad, the Springboks. It memorializes the year after the historic election in which Mandela took office backed by a resounding majority of South Africans, most of whom had voted for the first time in their lives. It is a self-consciously uplifting movie, in which swelling music cues the viewer to moments of high emotion, even if little in the script has given you anything to be emotional about.

If you have seen the movie you might say: what script? I’m not sure I would have had a clue what was going on if I hadn’t been reading memoirs and histories of modern South Africa for the last few months. Scenes with any dialogue at all are few and far between, and since we already know that South Africa did not collapse into anarchy after 1994 and that the Springboks did win the World Cup in 1995, the only real suspense in the movie is whether Madiba is going to be assassinated by a rugby fan (which we also know didn’t happen.) The cinematography is fantastic, and also self-indulgent, given how little story there is. The editor clearly went off to lunch and never came back, as the film is close to three hours long. If you like this sort of thing, there are many scenes of nice male behinds in little white shorts that hide a large, grunting mass. (“Why are they doing that?” my companion whispered. “It’s a scrum,” I said, divesting myself of one of the two things I know about rugby. “Yes, but why are they doing that?” she persisted.)

Needless to say, if you are not already in love with rugby, and have been waiting for your whole life to have someone make a movie about it, you may feel as lukewarm about this movie as I do. On the other hand, the movie is so long and repetitive that if you know nothing about rugby, I can guarantee that by the end of Invictus, even though you will have learned almost nothing about South Africa, you will have learned the rules of rugby. In fact, the entire last hour is consumed by the World Cup rugby tournament. Political lesson? The way to Afrikaaners’ hearts was through their cleats; black South Africans, in turn, were gracious in victory and could, metaphorically, “learn how to play a new game.” By winning the World Cup (which they could not have done without the spiritual leadership of Nelson Mandela), the Springboks ensured that the new South Africa would be a harmonious one.

Really! Racial reconciliation was all about rugby? You don’t say? But it’s true. At the beginning of the movie, whites and blacks are barely speaking to each other, except at the urging of Mandela; by the final goal of the final match, blacks and whites are hugging each other, and black Africans have utterly forgiven decades of brutal colonial domination. The Afrikaaner police state that murdered, tortured and dismembered thousands of people, often quite randomly, has melted into an invisible past. Afrikaaners, on the other hand, have also extended one big hug to the people they kept a boot on for decades: they have given up racism, painted their faces in ANC colors, taken the maid to the World Cup final and been relieved of their fears that the country will descend into political and economic chaos that will send them fleeing to Canada and Australia.

Do I have to say that I found the movie hugely disappointing? And it isn’t just because the interpretive gloss of Invictus isn’t true (at the same time, I happen to be reading Antjie Krog’s amazing account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Country of My Skull in which the violence perpetrated on all sides, and the messy incompleteness of reconciliation, is described in moving detail.) It’s because Eastwood, Freeman and Damon all have really good politics, and they have made a Hallmark Card of a movie that is designed to take South Africa off the map of the American mind as a place where American money should be targeting specific problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality that were engineered during the apartheid era with the full cooperation of the United States government and many powerful American corporations. Interestingly, in May 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled that three law suits suing over 50 US corporations for their role in apartheid may be tried in US courts under the Alien Torts Act. And in December, 2009, slightly more than a week before the release of Invictus, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Ford, General Motors and IBM for their support of the apartheid regime.

From the beginning, the big debate about reconciliation in South Africa has been whether it can occur without compensation. It’s not just that millions of people were deliberately immiserated under apartheid for over half a century, and resources redirected to lift the condition of Afrikaaners (who themselves believed that they had been unjustly held back and impoverished by the English.) It’s that millions of people are still immiserated by the world apartheid made, and that Nelson Mandela could not unmake by becoming a rugby fan.

It is also true that the hatreds bred by apartheid and the violent resistance to apartheid could not breed a new world either. Mandela knew that, and the story about the Springboks is a small part of what he really did to effect a peaceful transition to black citizenship and an ANC government. But by telling a story about the power of sport to resolve political problems, Eastwood, Freeman and Damon have simply played into an old and tired American nationalistic myth about race that has nothing to do with South Africa, either in 1995 or now.

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