Sunday, December 20, 2009

Invictus (Review)

(Spoilers ahoy)

I don't like sports movies. Understandable, since by-and-large sports aren't something which gives me pleasure in life. Football (American football, that is) in particular holds zero charm for me. So I watched Invictus with hesitation, because the subject matter is rugby -- pretty much what Americans call football but played without armor.

What would give me great pleasure is to call this a great movie. But I cannot quite go that far. Unhesitatingly, I can and do call it a very good one.

The time is South Africa after the end of Apartheid, as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, who never turns in even a mediocre performance) becomes the first black President of that nation. From what I've read, Mandela's stature in South Africa is difficult to fully understand. He is to that nation what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to the United States -- save that he probably prevented a Civil War. Everything I've been able to learn confirms this. But at the same time, there was and is a lot more to this man than his political skills, his courage and his startlingly wide vision. Invictus isn't about all that, although it makes a few hints here and there. What this movie tells is of a real event Mandela used to help bring all of South Africa together -- the Rugby World Cup.

In racially segregated (to use an extremely mild term for Apartheid) South Africa, one social difference between races was sports. Blacks played soccer. Whites played rugby. More, the Whites revered and cherished their national rugby team the Springboks (a kind of African antelope -- I looked it up). Wow, they sound like Americans already. But the Springboks were segregated even before Apartheid. Blacks could "get away" with defiance by cheering the opposing teams, and did so with relish. Even the Springbok colors -- green and gold -- had just about the same emotional resonance for Blacks there as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (the so-called "stars and bars") does for Blacks here. As Apartheid ended, a Black player at last joined the team, and the team's banning from international competition was lifted. This latter is an important point. Mandela in a speech early in the film pledges his country will never again "...suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world." He wants to improve his homeland's position in the eyes of all nations, to undo the damage done by decades of boycotts. But even more, he has to bring together a racially diverse country seething with uncertainty and rage.

Almost intuitively (or so it seems) he sees in the Springboks a tool for that. He uses his own considerable prestige to keep the team and their colors from being banned. More, he publicly encourages the team captain (played by Matt Damon) as well as encouraging others to see the team as representative of one nation, one people. It is an uphill battle, and a subtle one, but very moving.

Now here it gets interesting, at least to me. I saw this film as part of a Christmas celebration at my day (i.e. paying) job in Hollywood. A nice party followed. Discussing the movie with some of my co-workers, I got a glimpse at a perception that simply hadn't connected for me. To my eyes, the film was about the specific events leading up the Rugby World Cup and how they helped emotionally forge bonds between enough South Africans of all races to help define a new country. Just a tad milky, especially at the very very end, but accomplishing what the filmmakers (including director Clint Eastwood) intended -- a glimpse of when people at a crucial time found it within themselves to be just a little wiser, a little more hard-working, a little more generous. It was meant to inspire, to move -- and it did.

But one of two Black co-workers saw something different. They saw a clear-as-glassl parallel between the movie and current events in the United States, specifically the presidency of Barack Obama. Interestingly, they were less impressed with the film. One actively dismissed it (although he is something of a purist and doesn't much care for stories that pull any dramatic punches).

Of course, the details involved are extremely different. In some ways. Mandela represented an oppressed majority that unhesitatingly regarded him as a savior (as well as a king -- I was fascinated to learn Mandela is technically royalty). Apartheid had been abolished less than five years when he was elected President. In US terms this would be if Martin Luther King Jr. had been elected President in 1972 -- very soon after the end of Jim Crow Laws! Or if Frederick Douglas had been elected in 1868 -- less than half a decade after the Abolition of Slavery! That little thought gives one pause. Yeah, Whites are the majority in this country but isn't it a bit disheartening that there wasn't even a serious presidential candidate of color until generations after the Civil Rights Act was passed?

Some more differences: Despite our problems, the USA is much more stable and prosperous nation than South Africa. Obama was never a political prisoner, but a charismatic scholar and lawyer. Rather than a revolutionary leader, he is a left-of-center mediator (who is weirdly enough dubbed synonymous with Adolf Hitler by thousands of rabid loudmouths who remain completely at liberty -- an irony I doubt they notice).

But what about the similarities? By that I don't mean the simple fact that both are Black Men, Presidents of their respective (and racially mixed) nations, and both won the Nobel Peace Prize. I think maybe the real similarity here is about disappointment. In South Africa, the Black majority were openly oppressed as well as forbidden from many professions. All that changed within a decade. Here in the United States, racial progress has frankly been glacial by comparison. I strongly suspect most Whites have little awareness of that -- or of how much racism still pervades everyday life here. How could that not instill some genuine RAGE? Look at rap music -- and look to see how many critics act as if those lyrics are something to be taken literally as opposed to (much more ominously) as an expression of deep dissatisfaction?

For the record, I don't much like rap music but methinks that is a matter of personal taste. And yeah, I know there is more to the whole rap culture than racial injustice. My point is that such is an important part of it, not the whole basis.

All of which makes me more critical but also more hopeful about the movie Invictus. On one hand, I really wish it had been gutsier, had delved more deeply into the complex emotional brew of race relations. The family of Matt Damon's character, for example -- methinks there was a lot more potential for conflict and drama there. But on the other hand -- most movie-goers in the United States are White, simply because most people here are of that ethnicity. The central message of the film, about patience and forgiveness and seeing beyond revenge or personal grievances, isn't that precisely the kind of thing that will help the United States actually deal with its own issues -- the deep (if sometimes subtle) racial tensions, the divisiveness, the challenge of rebuilding so much of our infrastructure, of redefining what we will be from here on out (in the wake of 9/11, of Iraq, or the what I suspect might end up termed The Great Recession)?

Another reason maybe to see this film.

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