Invictus: a Morgan Freeman Mandela masterclass

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
(Invictus, William Ernest Henley, 1875).

This is the short poem that gave its name to Clint Eastwood’s most recent film. The poem was a favourite of Nelson Mandela during his years at Robben Island. The story of the first year of his presidency after his 1994 election win and how it interwove with South Africa’s win in the 1995 rugby world cup makes for a superior couple of hours entertainment in a typically thoughtful Clint Eastwood film.

It makes for important viewing as South Africa is about to enter the world cup spotlight again, this time in the sport favoured by the black majority. Football would be hard enough to sell to an American audience, but promoting a movie in the US about Nelson Mandela, South Africa after apartheid and rugby is hard work even for a master filmmaker like Eastwood. Ideally it would have had an all South African cast but Hollywood backers demanded the star power of Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (the movie poster has Damon facing the camera and Freeman with his back turned). Yet these casting decisions are spot on. As Roger Ebert said, Eastwood is too old and too accomplished to have an interest in making a film only for money. Damon I always find the woodenest of actors but that was required to nail the character of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. This is one of Freeman’s great roles and one he lives and breathes. Everyone knows what Nelson Mandela looks like, but Freeman allowed you to forget that for a couple of hours while he inhaled the spirit of the man.
Unfortunately the American tendency to end with cheesy triumph spoils the film somewhat as the Springbok’s world cup win was an illusory event on the road to rainbow nationhood. The nation remains deeply divided with the political power entrenched in ANC hands but most of the economic power still with the white minority. The mutual backslapping and cheering compulsory to the ending of American films makes its way here though undoubtedly the 1995 victory was shared by nearly all South Africans (if not together).What the film does brilliantly bring out is how Mandela used the Springboks as a political tool (though some aspects were fictionalised). The Boks were a despised part of the apartheid establishment and a focus for world anger whenever they toured abroad. It was unsurprising the ANC wanted to change the colours, symbols and nickname to the more benign “Proteas” (as used by the cricket team). Mandela saw the “bread and circuses” aspect of sport could be used as a tool to unify the nation. That meant keeping the old symbols but divesting them of their original meaning.

The fairytale win of South Africa in that tournament is faithfully replicated. Rugby with its choreographed moves and often languid tempo lends itself well to cinematography (one of the reasons there has never been a great football movie is that the round ball code is too unpredictable). The characters of the players never much rise beyond predictable “black = terrorist” views so it is difficult to empathise with them. The sub-story of how Mandela’s black and white security staff deal with each other has more promise and more complex characters (the black leader’s injunction to a white guard to “smile” at a black meeting is one of the funnier moments).

The film really is about is Mandela, and it shines in scenes involving Morgan Freeman. It is easy to see how Matiba is venerated by black South Africans when the mirror of his soul is played with accomplishment by Morgan Freeman. The real Nelson Mandela turns 92 this year. The UN have decided his birthday 18 July, will henceforth be known as Mandela Day. As secular saints go there are few finer, but Invictus is no hagiography. It is a noble tribute to a man whose unconquerable soul made him one of the world’s finest politicians of the 20th century.


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