The timely release of Invictus coincides with the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom after 27 years in prison

Film: Invictus
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Morgan freeman, Matt Damon
Runtime: 109 mins
Review: Duncan Pelham
Rating: ***

The timely release of Invictus coincides with the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom after 27 years in prison.

The film’s story follows Nelson Mandela after he wins the first fully democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. Mandela is presented with the task of uniting a divided society torn apart by the grave social and economic ramifications of the apartheid system. Attending a South African Springbok rugby match, the President, notes that the black South Africans boo their home team. For them, the Springbok team represents and evokes the white supremacy that had previously fractured the country for so long. Invictus follows Mandela’s quest to turn the ramshackle team into a fighting force in the 1995 World Cup, one which might also have the power to bring unity to the polarized society.

Eastwood is tackling an incredibly complex issue: years of repression by the white minority has spawned a society marred by resentments and prejudices that run so deep that they simply cannot be given their due in the course of a two hour film. Neverthelesss, Eastwood does a noble job of presenting the prominant racial fault line. But his representation lacks subtlety; the opening scene sees the racial divide represented quite literally by a road. On one side, black children lean over a rickety fence cheering on Mandela’s release; on the other, just metres away, the pristine, privileged whites look on in silent trepidation. The Afrikaner coach spits, “Remember this day boys; when this country went to the dogs.”

Mandela – an outstanding performance from a dignified, warm and understated Morgan Freeman – recognises he must balance “black aspirations with white fears”, and there are subtler moments that hint at the complexities of this issue. For instance, the camera drifts across a black maid’s sullen face as her Afrikaner employer rants against the new black President. Tensions simmer between Mandela’s personal security force – a force the President insists must be multi-racial, not solely black. But as Mandela’s estranged wife remarks, how are the blacks supposed to work alongside the white security guards when they bear such resemblance to those who so heavy handedly threw Mandela in prison and enforced the harsh apartheid regime? Eastwood timidly prods and probes at these intricate questions for the first third of the film with this thought-provoking portrayal. But thereafter, socio-political deliberations take a backseat to the obligatory sporting endeavours of Matt Damon and inspirational-speech clichés.

Whilst Mandela’s quest for a unified rainbow nation via forgiveness and reconciliation is portrayed in a typically simplified manner, it is undeniably rousing. And the story’s predictable sporting underdog trajectory is made up for, in part, by the sheer force of the story. The fact that if this story was presented as fiction it would be implausible is testament to the incredible feat achieved by the South African rugby team and sport’s unexpected role in, briefly, unifying a divided nation.

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