Posted: 12/14/2009




by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Many “greats” can be attached to South African President Nelson Mandela’s list of accomplishments. One such endeavor is played out in Invictus, the movie starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the South African rugby stand-out player.

Mandela had been released from jail after being imprisoned for 27 years in Robben Island and had recently won the presidency during the first general South African election in 1994, which allowed blacks to vote. He quickly decides to attempt to mesh politics and sports by bringing the country together to cheer the South African Springboks to a 1995 World Cup victory. The only trick is that the sentiment of black South Africans is that they would rather break away from the Springboks, because they represent all that is apartheid South Africa.

But Mandela is smart and optimistic enough about a post-apartheid, united South Africa, and he is committed to using a united, all inclusive and participatory triumph at the World Cup as the foundation upon which to let all South Africa and the entire world know that blacks and whites can forget South Africa’s stinging, oppressive history and welcome a new “colorblind” society.

Invictus is a brilliant movie directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood and also starring South African actor Tony Kgoroge (Skin, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda) who plays Jason Tshabalala, the head of Mandela’s security team, which is charged with protecting the new leader at all costs.

The team learns a lesson early on, after Mandela insists that four of the old security detail join Jason’s group. The black security officers are confused and not easy with this decision, thinking that the white officers (who most likely participated in past deeds against black South Africans and the African National Congress ANC) couldn’t possibly be committed to protecting Mandela.

The Springboks learn that teaching little black boys to play rugby is just like teaching little white boys the same sport—all kids just want to learn and have role models for guidance.
In fact, the entire country learns a thing or two as Mandela uses rugby to help a nation at least put aside bad feelings of the past and hitch its hopes and aspirations on triumphs for the future. He uses the sports to touch politics, finances and other segments of South African life. Mandela knows that if the entire country, blacks included, can cheer and support the Springboks, then all South Africans would be that much more inspired to live in harmony. The relationship between Pienaar and Mandela is awkward at first but grows stronger as the movie progresses. Pienaar’s teammates don’t trust Mandela, and I’m certain they are just as confused about why Pienaar is invited to tea with Mandela and why the two befriend one another.
Invictus is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation and portrays Mandela as the great statesman for which he’s become known.

This is a great movie for entertainment and historical value, and though there is much discussion about Americans playing South African heroes, reportedly President Mandela welcomed and agreed with Freeman playing him in this movie. And while Invictus shows an old lion like Mandela as the victor, it also once again shows why Freeman and Eastwood are tops in their respective crafts.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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