Invictus (2009)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1 ; L-3 ; S/N-1 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. Proverbs 25:21-22

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live
peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘
Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if
your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty,
give them something to drink; for by doing this you
will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be
overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:18-21

A most unusual tea party leading to far reaching consequences.

2009 Warner Brothers Pictures

Clint Eastwood even in his 80th year continues to be one of the best filmmakers in this country, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. In his latest film Invictus he ventures beyond the familiar borders and culture of the USA to South Africa (even as he did so successfully in Letters From Iwo Jima). It is the early 1990s when the cruel apartheid system was falling, thanks to the successful struggle of the ANC and others led by Nelson Mandela. Throughout the film Mr. Eastwood uses vignettes to show the racial divide, such as in the opening scene. On one side of a road the national rugby team the Springboks is practicing in their spiffy uniforms. On the other side a group of black youth in rag-tag clothing are playing soccer. When a motorcade passes by, the blacks rush to the fence and cry out in joy because they know that the newly freed Nelson Mandela is passing by. On the other side of the road the whites look up but display no sign of enthusiasm. Indeed, their coach says that this is another sign that the country is “going to the dogs.”

A montage of scenes shows the incredible election four years later and of Mandela’s election to the presidency. A scornful white editor comments, “He can win a revolution, but can he run a country?” Mandela tells his staff that it is a fair question. Most whites believe that the answer is a negative one, as we see in a living room where an old white man makes disparaging remarks about his nation’s first black president. The man is the father of François Pienaar, and the son is also under attack by sports announcers and the public. He is the captain of the Springboks, and they have not had a winning season in a long time. With South Africa scheduled to host the rugby’s World Cup, pressure is strong to fire the coach and the captain. The former is sacked, but because he is a skillful player Francois is kept on.

The black populace hate the team as a symbol of the Afrikaner oppressive society, even though the team has grudgingly bent to the winds of change by signing one black team member. Mandela comments that while imprisoned on Robben Island, he had always rooted for the British team whenever the two had played against each other. However, now he is president of the country, one deeply, dangerously, divided. Knowing that all the upcoming games will be played in his, the host country, he muses that maybe the Springboks can be the means of helping bring the hostile whites and blacks together to begin the healing process his troubled country so desperately needs. He had already shown the way when he had told the assembled government staff members that all whites who would work with him could retain their jobs, a gesture that at first dismayed his black staff members. He even integrates his security staff, much to the disgust of his original bodyguards, all of course whom were black. As one points out, these are the guys who had once beaten and imprisoned them.

On the radio Mandela hears that the national rugby association board, now dominated by blacks, has just voted to change the name of the national team and its colors. The old name and jerseys remind them too much of the apartheid system. Quickly ordering his state car, he arrives at the meeting before it has ended and appeals to them to rescind their motion. They are very upset at what seems like a sell-out until he explains that their motion will alienate the whites, that if he can get both blacks and whites to root for the Springboks, this might greatly help the process of reconciliation. Winning them over, he then sets in motion what amounts to a Gandhian campaign of forgiveness and reconciliation.

His first hurdle is that the Springboks have been such a losing team that nobody thinks they have a chance of remaining in the race past the first elimination round—and this includes the team itself. Mandela’s first move is one inherited from their former British rulers: he invites team captain François Pienaar to an afternoon tea. Francois is puzzled by the invitation, and his father downright scornful, but he accepts. His wife drives him to the presidential office, telling him that she will wait in the car. Inside, after warmly greeting him and pouring the tea himself, president and athlete talk about the nature of leadership and of the upcoming games leading to the World Cup Game. Mandela shares how the Victorian era poem “Invictus” had inspired him not to give up hope during his long imprisonment. They part, with Francois greatly impressed and moved by the man so despised by his fellow whites.

Thus begins an unusual friendship that not only changes the course of sports history, but begins to transform a nation as well. Francois, hereafter more motivated, passes on his new enthusiasm to his teammates, and they begin a winning streak. They also travel around to playgrounds in order to teach black children the basics of rugby and thus to overcome black antipathy to what they had regard as a white man’s sport. A delightful demonstration of the racial divide is the scene in which the black children rush to greet the lone black Springboks member, completely ignoring the whites, even team captain Francois.

Through a series of vignettes, one very amusing, and all very dramatic—those involving his at first hostile black and white security team; the apartheid-supportive Pienaar family; the rugby team itself (whose white members at first refuse Peter’s request that they join in singing the black’s version of the national anthem); and a delightful sequence during the climactic game when just outside the stadium a black street kid edges close to the radio of a group of hostile white cops, all of them finally joining in cheering the team—the film displays the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, not only as a moral force, but as a political tactic also. Thanks to the script by Anthony Peckham, Mr. Eastwood’s unobtrusive direction, and by the great acting skills of Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, and a talented supporting cast, Invictus lifts the old sports genre of the underdog overcoming great odds to new heights, giving us a powerful visual parable of forgiveness and reconciliation. As I say in my You Tube review, I think that Gandhi and Martin Luther king, Jr. would approve of Mandela and Francois—and also of the teller of their story, Clint Eastwood.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Compare the two main characters. What motivates them? How does Francois show that he also is open to change?

2. At the beginning what do the whites and blacks expect will happen with the election of the country’s first black president? How does Nelson Mandela surprise both sides of the racial divide? How is this a Gandhian tactic? And how is it surprising, stemming from the head of the ANC who had refused the apartheid government’s numerous offers of freedom if he would agree to renounce
violence? (Remember his answer? That he would renounce violence only if the government would also stop its violence against blacks.)

3. At their tea, when Mandela asks his guest his idea of leadership, what does Francois reply? How is this an insightful answer? (That a leader must be the example of leadership.) How does each of them set an example throughout the film?

4. Which of the scenes of growing reconciliation impressed you the most? In such circumstances, who has to be the first to begin the process of forgiveness and reconciliation? How does the apostle Paul show this in his plea to the Roman Christians in which he quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures?

5. Paul also warned the Romans not to be “conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (12:2a) How do both protagonists refuse to “be conformed to this world” ? (I love the imagery in J.B. Philips version of this verse, “Do not let the world squeeze you into its own mold.” )

6. Reflect upon two acts of the white teammates: One gives Mandela a team cap (did you keep wondering, as I did, when he would wear it?); they first refuse to even learn the words of “God Bless Africa,” but then finally at (is it the climactic game?) do join in. (For words and a drum version of the song go to http://www.africamasterweb.com/godblessafafricand.html)

7. How does Francois’ visit to Robben Island affect him? I once regarded British poet William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” first published in 1875, as another example of Victorian smugness over their ability through rationality and science to control life, something that the horrors of World War swept away. How does Mandela’s use of the poem change this view? How do the words “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” inform and support his resistance against the government’s attempt to defeat him and strip away his dignity? Do you have a favorite poem or Scripture passage that steels your will and helps you through tough times?

8. What other sports genre films can you think of that show that a sport is more than a sport, but can have great symbolical meaning? (Beginning with 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, and including such films as: The Blind Side; Coach Carter; The Express; Field of Dreams; Glory Road; Remember the Titans and—.) Note an important difference in Invictus: it is an empowered black man, not a benevolent white, who initiates the transformation process. (The film closest to this is The Great Debaters, in which the chief figure, perhaps even a Christ figure, also is a black man.) Indeed, although the film does not delve much into the background of either character, from what we are shown of the Pienaar household, how can we say that Mandela has helped liberate Francois?

9. The film, wisely perhaps, does not draw any direct parallels between South Africa and the USA, but do you see any?

10. At one point Mandela speaks about the fear of whites and blacks for each other, which made me think of Alan Paton’s great novel Cry, the Beloved Country and the Broadway play based on the book, set to Kurt Weill’s stirring music, Lost in the Stars, in which much is said about the mutual fear between blacks and whites. In the Dell paperback Famous American Plays of the 1940s (still available through Amazon.com) one can read the play, and especially the powerful choral song “Murder in Parkwold—Fear” —see pp. 330-333. The entire album can be downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Lost-In-The-Stars/dp/B000W237M4/ref=dm_cd_album_lnk for under $10, a bargain for such a stirring and beautiful musical score, proving what a great composer Kurt Weill was—and also what a good adaptor was Maxwell Anderson. This is a resource that I wish every pastor and educator had in heir collection.

11. Compare what has happened in South Africa (where many horrendous problems still remain to be solved) with what happened in other newly liberated nations in Africa and Asia.

12. Reflecting theologically, how can we say that this is a film suffused with grace? List the many “moments of grace” in the film. How was Nelson Mandela the right man, God’s man, to lead the country as the system of apartheid began to be dismantled? And Francois Pienaar as well?

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