How long would it take for you to get laughed out of a major Hollywood film studio executive’s office if you pitched this screenplay?
A messianic president combines statesmanship, grace, courage and an underachieving national rugby team to smoothly blend together diverse, feuding populations in a multiethnic stew of 43 million people in a fledgling, fragile democracy cursed by centuries of racial oppression and injustice.
Oh, and the vast majority of this country’s population hates rugby and the national team, whose green-and-gold jerseys adorned with an antelope logo are about as welcome in their communities as the Confederate flag is in Harlem. Now add a happy ending, in which the team converts haters and becomes world champions.
Yet the newly released, Clint Eastwood-directed film, “Invictus” is based on those true events, which unfolded in South Africa 15 years ago. It’s a passionately told, inspirational gem based on journalist John Carlin’s outstanding page-turner, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation.”
But “Invictus” does more than merely chronicle the South Africa Springboks’ unlikely 1995 Rugby World Cup victory – and the country’s mighty step toward making peace with its horrific racial past. Coincidentally, it also tempts Americans to make the inevitable comparison of how much – or little – progress we’ve made in race relations.
In the film, the seemingly too-good-to-be-true fairytale culminates in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park (now Coca-Cola Park), where, just a year into his presidency, Nelson Mandela, proudly sporting a matching Springboks jersey and cap, hoists aloft the trophy with team captain Francois Pienaar, as both the stadium and the country erupts in joyful, tearful bedlam. Change and hope are in the air. The images might make some folks nostalgic for a certain, equally watershed moment in American history in Chicago’s Grant Park.
But capturing the sweetness of the Springboks’ moment is the easy part. That’s why Eastwood should get props for sensitively and skillfully capturing the sour times that preceded it. Even as Mandela (whose body language and vocal inflection Morgan Freeman uncannily captures) and Pienaar (played by an uber beefed-up and Afrikaans-accented Matt Damon) forge their unlikely alliance, both black and white bitter-enders resist this seemingly unholy union.
Eastwood uses the visual metaphor of two adjacent South African fields separated by a highway and fences, to show the deep chasm that existed on the very day of Mandela’s 1990 release. On one side, white teens practice their beloved rugby on a pristine pitch, while on the other, black youths play soccer on a hardscrabble sandlot. But five years later, because of Mandela’s urging and Pienaar’s willingness to personify a “One Team, One Country” philosophy that goes beyond a slick P.R. slogan, there the Springboks are, conducting children’s rugby clinics in black townships and even learning to sing the Xhosa tribe’s liberation song-turned-national-anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa.”)
Still, Mandela struggled hard in his presidency, after spending 27 years as a political prisoner of the apartheid regime to earn such victories. In an early scene set the morning after Mandela is inaugurated, an Afrikaner newspaper’s headline sharply asks if he’s qualified to run the country, while a white, English-speaking TV talking head speaks of Mandela’s task to “balance black aspirations with white fears.”
It’s eerie that 15 years later those very same issues are continually raised on our own shores by pundits, prominent members of the opposition party, and some of the public in Barack Obama’s fledgling presidency.
“Invictus” – whose title is based on the William Ernest Henley poem that inspired Mandela during his incarceration – effectively conveys rugby as a catalyst and salve in South Africa’s healing process. But for African-American audiences, it may pose the question of what, beyond a landmark presidential election, might help cure lingering racial inequities in this country. Perhaps America can learn to become a harmonious multiracial society through the steps South Africa has taken in that direction.
That elusive answer may lie in a dramatic scene in which a doggedly determined Mandela declares, “reconciliation starts here. It liberates the soul. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon. It’s time to build our nation.”