Oscarbation: How Rugby Solves Racism in Invictus

02/19/2010 10:48 AM |


Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are learning about experiences of racial difference. This week Nelson Mandela asks them to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus.

Hey, Henry, why are there two movies about South African apartheid up for major Academy Awards this year? Or, more generally, why are half of 2010’s Best Picture nominees primarily concerned with issues of racial difference? I’ll tell you why: Barack Obama. Until the super-slow-mo rugby component of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus takes over, as the focus shifts from the early days of Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) presidency to the South African rugby team’s (the Springboks) preparations for the 1995 rugby world cup, this is an Obama movie through and through, about a political underdog coming to power thanks to massive popular appeal and despite open hostility from his entrenched opponents.

Mandela is portrayed as a uniter, a broker of peace, constantly struggling to restore justice and dignity to South Africa’s black majority all the while showing goodwill to the terrified and powerful Afrikaner minority. Kind of like Obama’s not always successful attempts to reconcile the needs of the lower- and middle-classes with the wants of the super-wealthy. Not that Eastwood’s film often veers from a relatively unglamorous and very thorough period realism, but the Obama parallels in its first half are hard to miss.

I found this part of the film, which divided its time between Mandela’s first decisions while in office and the tensions amidst his uneasily racially integrated security force (led by the outstanding Tony Kgoroge) to be pleasantly free of the sorts of cheesy, photo-op moments that I found myself dreading going into Invictus. Kgoroge’s performance as Jason, the always-on edge lead bodyguard, formed an interesting contrast to the radiant calm and warmth of Freeman’s Mandela. (You, who hate big, self-important Oscar-tailored actor showcases, must have liked Freeman’s performance, no?) Pity that the Best Supporting Actor nomination went to Matt Damon (about whom more later) instead of Kgoroge. Those early scenes in which we’re introduced to the new president by way of his daily routines and gestures—early morning walks and chats with his security force, spontaneous work sessions at every opportunity, a wardrobe alternating between business suits and traditional African prints, a pseudo-philosophical appreciation of tea—are like vintage Eastwood, with their restrained approach to storytelling built on Freeman’s unpretentious, often uncanny performance.

Even in these excellent sequences, though, there are intimations of the sports melodrama that awaits. The opening set piece, which shows the Mandela motorcade on his first day in office driving between a fancy, whites-only rugby pitch and an all-dirt, blacks-only soccer field, eliciting jeers and cheers of elation, respectively, was already a little facile and hokey, but Eastwood piles on such redundant moments. Most annoyingly, there’s that one scene completely unrelated to anything, in which a white woman giving away clothes at a small rural church doesn’t understand why an emaciated young black boy dressed in tattered clothes won’t take the good-as-new Springboks uniform she offers him. Her co-volunteer helpfully explains (to us): “Because for them, Springboks still represent Apartheid.” Oh, right…

After the film skips ahead a few years the focus is increasingly on the Springboks and their captain Francois Pienaar (Damon), who is personally charged by Mandela with leading his team to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa hosted (and, non-spoiler alert, won). Francois still lives with his family, who are so compassionate and open-minded that after cursing Mandela in the opening minutes papa Pinaar takes the clan’s black domestic to the big game. Readers take note: sports solve racism. Henry, I’m sure you’ll delve into Invictus’ plentiful poverty porn—Prison tours complete with 3D time-travel visions! Visits to real, live townships!—but I really need to point out the horrendous song that plays during Mandela’s last-minute team pep talk on the eve of the world cup kick-off. The Overtone track is maybe the sappiest, crappiest thing in this progressively more icky movie—“Yes we’ve conquered the war/with love at the core/I stumble, I fall/but I’ll stay/colorblind.” Seriously. It’s called “Colorblind” for chrissakes! This moment, as much as any other, completes the film’s sudden shift from surprisingly, unpretentiously good to disgustingly gooey. Invictus is like a top-notch Clint Eastwood movie immediately followed by a disastrously bad Clint Eastwood movie.

Hey, you’re right, Ben: I did like Freeman’s performance—which is saying something, because I don’t usually like Morgan Freeman. He always acts with his voice, and what I liked most here is that he was forced to assume an accent, and so it was like watching an actor I’m not sick of. Of course, he won’t win the Oscar—that would have been like giving Obama an Academy Award. (The Nobel Peace Prize isn’t enough?) Because, man, you’re dead on: the Obama parallels are glaring, for reasons beyond those you mention: the assassination paranoia; the thrilled, historically oppressed black population; the looming unemployment problems. Did you notice the way he alienates his base with his message of compromise reconciliation? And yet he still manages to push through rugby reform. Obama should call a meeting with Morgan Freeman right away.

But, yeah, this turns out to be a Profile in Rugby Courage, and I’m with you: it’s a great movie right up to the point that it becomes terrible. I think I pinpointed the turning point: it’s the montage in which Damon and the entire (almost entirely white) Springbok team teach rugby fundamentals to ragged-clothed black children. There are, as you note, hints of what’s to come throughout—like the billboard that reads “ONE TEAM ONE COUNTRY”—but it’s after that sequence that Invictus gets a little too fucking inspirational, the moment at which the careful balance between what you perfectly call “restrained storytelling” and sappy clichés (most gratingly, that godawful music!) tips over.

But, you know, I still have to hand it to Eastwood. You’re right, that opening shot is terribly hokey, but it’s remarkably effective, too, in that old-fashioned-mastery sort of way. He did lay out the entire thematic structure in a single, smooth crane shot. Even when I hated Invictus—God, I can’t expand on what you said vis-à-vis the hallucinatory visit to Mandela’s prison, which was just so…I dunno, racist? Patronizing? Condescending? Offensive? Matt Damon, your (white) heart is so big!—I found it patriotically stirring, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Young Mr. Lincoln. (Or maybe Miracle, what with the sports and all.) And it was about a country I’ve never visited! Hell, I don’t even know any South Africans. Intellectually, it was terribly unconvincing, but still emotionally resonant. Remember that scene near the end when the entire team, which had earlier dismissed the new national anthem with sneering racism, joins in singing it? Eastwood could’ve ended the movie right there and sent everyone home happy without even showing us the result of the big game. I shed a few tears during that moment, and later when they won the match. Tears I was savvy enough to know were being cheaply drained from my eyes, but tears nonetheless, Ben. Tears nonetheless.

(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)