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My Head Is Bloody But Unbowed

By TK Burton | Film | December 14, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Film | December 14, 2009 |

In August of 1984, my parents, being of mixed race, active members of the then-illegal African National Congress (ANC), and somewhat prescient, packed my sister and I up and fled South Africa, emigrating to Massachusetts, where we had briefly lived once before. Eleven months after we left, a State of Emergency would be declared, and the already harsh and repressive government took steps to stifle speech and further curtail black and coloured rights. I was 10 years old. In 1993, my mother and I went back to visit our much-missed family. The day after we arrived, the leader of the South African Communist Party (also an illegal party) was assassinated, sending the country into further turmoil. I was 17 years old for that.

I mention this not for the sake of nostalgia, but to give a sense of what the world was like for South Africans, both abroad and at home, back in those tumultuous days. I remember when Nelson Mandela was released from prison; my parents, sister, and my mother’s sister’s family were all huddled in our living room, transfixed by the television, tears in our eyes. Two thoughts went through our heads as that gray-haired figure finally stepped into the camera’s eye: “My God, I can’t believe I’m seeing this,” and, “My God, please don’t let him get assassinated.” These thoughts are inevitable when, for the majority of your life, your home government has made a practice of such things, and when your leaders have spent their lives behind bars.

The rift that tore open South Africa as a result of Apartheid was a deep, jagged gash. It started decades ago, and it exists today. The dynamics of it have changed, for sure, but the wound is still raw and parts of it still fester. But every day, one hopes, things get a little better. Some days things get worse.

But some days … some days are like June 24, 1995.

Invictus, released last week, is directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team (called the Springboks, or “bokke”). It tells the story of how Mandela, showing remarkable political savvy, worked with Pienaar to try to bring the country together by championing the rugby team, and how Pienaar eventualy lead his team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I’ll leave it to Dustin’s review (which I confess I deliberately haven’t read yet), to give you the fuller synopsis. The film is good, though not great, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s always difficult for me to review films about South Africa fairly and impartially. The acting in Invictus is certainly top-notch, although Freeman’s accent was probably the weakest in the film. Damon nailed his, though that’s no surprise. The man’s a chameleon, and with his brawny physique and generically handsome blond looks, he’s perfect for the part.

Of course, we — my family and I — always get frustrated when Americans are cast as South Africans, when we know there are quality South African actors out there (especially in the wake of District 9), and that resentment was still present as I watched Invictus. While much of the supporting cast was comprised of genuine South Africans, seeing the leads go to Americans inevitably smarts a bit, regardless of how good a job they may do. Of course, we also realize the realities of the situation — unless you’re making a movie about alien invasions, it’s unlikely you’re going to do much business at the box office (the brilliant Tsotsi is the perfect example of that, a fantastic film that no one saw). But, with Eastwood directing and Damon and Freeman’s names on the posters, you’ll definitely fill a few more seats.

That quibble aside, the film is certainly an enjoyable one. Filmed on location in Cape Town (the town I was born in), it’s hard for me to not be emotionally affected by it. Every shot of Table Mountain, every pan through the desolate townships, makes me swallow a little harder than usual, and makes the room seem a little dustier. It’s inevitable — hence my difficulty with impartiality. I will say this though — the cinematography in Invictus is stunning. It’s an easy country to film in some respects, given its abundance of natural beauty as well as abject poverty, but it still takes a skilled lensman to weave it together cohesively, and Invictus has a real sense of life to it, of time and place captured perfectly. Similarly, costume design is painstakingly perfect, both for the country and the time. Every article of clothing, every maid’s apron and soldier’s boot is a flawless representation of those moments in time.

My chief complaints were that there are some wasted minutes — a weakly executed subplot about Mandela’s family could have been left out altogether. While I thoroughly enjoyed a subplot about his newly-integrated security force, there were other pieces that might have benefited from more editing. The soundtrack is a surprisingly mixed bag — surprising because Eastwood usually knocks his soundtracks out of the park. A little too much use of cheesily sentimental vocal numbers hurts the tone of the film at times.

Hollywood has an irrepressible penchant for the heavily dramatized sports story, the tales of how it’s not just a sport, sometimes a game is more than a game, hard work and love for one another can lead to a triumph of the human spirit. As Dustin wrote recently in a Random List, sometimes those inspirational stories aren’t all that inspirational. On screen, Invictus is very much so. The film is a slow burn, a steady, methodical road towards that final dramatic match against the juggernaut New Zealand team in the championship. Mandela is impossibly noble, while Damon’s Pienaar is something of a valiant everyman who is simultaneously overwhelmed by the challenge and the responsibility, but also dedicated and determined. The country is united in their adoration of the team, and it brings people together through the common cause and love of sport. It’s a tremendous finale, even if it does seem a bit too long. Even those who know next to nothing about rugby won’t be able to help being swept up in it, and it’s helped by Eastwood wisely avoiding too many lengthy, shmatlz-ridden inspirational speeches. Eastwood does what he frequently does so well — he makes his characters real and human. As such, the film succeeds in getting the viewer to buy into it, and the climax is handled with surprising subtlety. Blacks and whites aren’t suddenly running through the streets hand-in-hand, but for a moment, they are united.

So of course, we must ask, how accurate is that? I’ll give one last anecdote. In 1993, I remember driving past an all-white private school, where kids were practicing rugby on a lush green field. I asked my cousin, who was driving, if they ever watched rugby. Her response was a sharp, guttural noise of disgust, after which she proclaimed, “Rugby? Ach man, it’s a boere sport.” She was disgusted by the question. Rugby was, unquestionably, the sport of the oppressor, of the Afrikaaners, of the enemy. Two years later, that cousin, and other South African friends and family, would regale me with tales of how their team, their country, conquered seemingly impossible odds to win the whole damn thing. They would rattle off player’s names breathlessly, tell me extensively of the bedlam that took place following that final minute of the match, how people danced and laughed and jumped up and down in the streets. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought they were talking about the election all over again.

Invictus is one of the rare sports films that is accurate in terms of its impact, that captures the scope and tone and importance of the moment without too much exaggeration. The victory of South Africa over New Zealand was and still is perhaps one of the greatest sports moments of true national pride that the country and its people — all of its people — had ever experienced. In that sense, Eastwood captured everything about those events almost flawlessly. It truly did bring a nation together. South Africa still suffers from high crime levels, a crippled economy, widespread poverty, underdevelopment, and all of the other lasting effects brought down by the sins of its fathers. But for those months and weeks and days leading to June 24th, 1995 (and in many ways, since then), the country was one. Invictus captured this without an excess of melodrama, with just the right amount of spirit, with a loving eye for detail. It’s a strong film that stumbles here and there, but it gets one thing right — those events mattered, and because of them, the wound may have healed itself a little.

TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.