02 March 2010

Invictus - a film that loses

Yesterday as I was looking for a way to escape the Biblical rain of Rio de Janeiro, I ducked into the Odeon Theatre to see Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s latest machopiece. Invictus is based on the relationship between Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), the South African Rugby team and its captain (Matt Damon), and the complicated political, social, and cultural realties of post-Apartheid South Africa. While the film is successful in bringing a few tears to the eye, in my opinion it does much more harm than good in demonstrating the power of sport to transform social relations.

In the opening scene of the film, Eastwood adequately demonstrates the highly racialized nature of sport in South Africa. Mandela’s caravan passes between two distinct groups. On one side of the street, large, well-fed whites play rugby on immaculate grass. On the other, skinny blacks play soccer with a homemade ball in the dirt. The blacks cheer Mandela’s passing, the white rugby coach says, “Remember this as the day our country went to the dogs.”

Mandela, as the newly elected president, is looking for ways to reconcile the country and hits upon the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a way to reach out to the Afrikaners. Mandela leverages the historical association of the Springboks with the Apartheid regime to construct a new image of South Africa as a rainbow nation. This, of course, angers and alienates black South Africans who are not as willing as Mandela to forgive and forget centuries of oppression by the Afrikaners.

Mandela will not be dissuaded from his project to leverage the racial identity of sport with his political project. He calls the Springbok captain (Pienaar) to the presidential palace, talks about leadership characteristics and performance, charms his shorts off, visits the team, learns their names, intervenes in a decision by the national sports federation to ban the Springbok colors and symbols, and has some horribly stilted conversations about how an international rugby tournament functions. South Africa performs beyond expectations, the team visits Robben Island before their semi-final match, Mandela delivers a hand-written copy of the poem “Invictus” to the captain (which he had read to himself in prison), dresses in the Springbok jersey, strides onto the field to shake hands with the teams in front of 60,000 South Africans who start chanting his name, and the ‘Boks beat the fancied Kiwis to win the world Cup and South Africa enters into a golden era of racial and class harmony not seen since…ever.

The heavy-handed implication of Invictus (based on the book, Playing the Enemy) is that the 1995 Rugby World Cup united a nation and set South Africa on a path towards reconciling the horrors of Apartheid. Here are the major problems that I had with the film:

Eastwood portrays the only black Springbok, Chester, as someone who “doesn’t like to think” about race. Why make Chester such a dull patsy? True, Chester is not obliged to be any kind of militant and perhaps he really didn’t want to think about being black in a white world, but surely he could have been put into the story more instead of focusing on Mandela’s relationship with Pienaar. Eastwood’s portrayal of Mandela as excessively concerned with Chester’s presence on the team may also be ingenuous as it would indicate that Mandela was leveraging Chester’s race for his own political project.

Enough with the geographic fantasy of the South African landscape. We get it, Cape Town is beautiful. Squatter settlements are romantic and tragic, best not seen except from the window of a tour bus. FIFA also gets it, which is why they refused the initial suggestions for the World Cup stadium location and moved it to a place that would look better for international television audiences. The geographic fetish of landscape brought
the Olympic Games to Vancouver, something that British Colombians will be paying down for the next generation.

Un-problematic class and race relations: the family of captain Pienaar is obliged to take their black maid because Pienaar has given her a ticket. The family hugs as South Africa wins, but the next day, the maid will be back at her post, traveling the same distance on the same crappy buses to get to a low paying life of sub-altern struggle. Nothing changes with the victory, she’s still a black maid in a white house. Sport does allow for the temporary inversion of social relationships, but the structural elements that allow those things to happen tend to reinforce inequality. This is especially true in regard to mega-events, and doubly true in South Africa (and Brazil) where the construction of sports facilities results in fertile grazing for white elephants.

The symbolic elements of sport are incredibly powerful and the evidence from South Africa is that nothing changed after the 1995 World Cup. In  1998, debates were still raging about the use and abuse of the Springbok symbols. Symbols acquire power and significance over time, and have emotional, cultural, and class significations that cannot be easily erased or changed. Sport is inherently political, making it more so doesn’t necessarily help.

The use of sport, and in particular, sport mega-events to transform societies is a much longer and more complicated process than Invictus would lead us to believe. The reality of post-Apartheid, and post 1995 World Cup South Africa is that race relations have improved, but that they have been substituted with unequal class and geographic relationships that have equally pernicious effects. We will undoubtedly learn that the 
2010 FIFA World Cup will transform South Africa. This is no doubt true, but opens nine stadium-sized cans of worms.

Movie rating: 1.5 stars. Not worth seeing.

1 comment:

The Editor said...

Thanks for the review. I would probably have checked this out at some point down the road but now won't waste my time.


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