Thursday, December 16, 2010


I was not initially excited at the prospect of seeing Invictus. As, no doubt, many of you can attest, Invictus looks merely like another feel-good sports movie. You see it on the DVD shelf at the store and you think to yourself, "Oh, so that's what Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman were doing with their spare time," then you keep walking. And, to a certain extent, this is true. The South African Rugby team captained by Matt Damon is terrible at first but, under Mr. Freeman's encouragement, they end up competing in the championship and winning, despite all odds. While you may think it a spoiler to say that they win, the back of the DVD clearly shows Matt Damon holding a trophy, so blame whoever developed that DVD cover, not me.

Rugby Post-Apartheid

But I felt that the advertising and trailer for this movie did not do it justice. What they seem to forget to focus on is the fact that this rugby championship happened in post-Apartheid South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was let out of prison and elected president, when racist whites no longer held the reins of power in the country. Really, this cultural/historical backdrop is more important than the rugby, and it is given a great deal of attention that makes the rugby games have greater ramifications than just another team winning a championship. This is actually why I've never had any interest in watching and getting into sports. I can appreciate the fun of it, but it always seemed pointless to me how people can get worked up into a frenzy over these teams when, at the end of it, the trophies and victories are meaningless. It is just a game.

But Invictus provided me a reason to care about the team winning. In this time period and within the movie, we see Nelson Mandela do his utmost to treat whites and blacks equally, and he finds that the sport of rugby is an area within which both races can get excited together. His end goal is a unified nation where whites and blacks get along instead of fighting back and forth. He wonders how he can inspire them to work together. And rugby provides that answer. Thus, with the cooperation of Matt Damon (the captain of the South African team), Mandela pushes the team to find victory in the Rugby World Cup, to inspire the nation to find solidarity together.

Snapshot of a Man

The end result of the rugby games in the movie are predictable. The team that we are rooting for wins. South Africa celebrates a time where whites can hug blacks in mutual victory. It is as touching as it is expected. But what really made the movie special to me was the background it provided on Mandela, and what made him a great man. If all of what happened in the movie was true, Mandela's compassion for the people of South Africa is truly inspiring, for whites and blacks.

Given his past, this should not be. He was imprisoned by the racist white Apartheid government for years upon years in horrible living conditions. He was provided only a mattress, living in a caged room the size of a closet. His days were occupied with smacking uselessly at rocks with a pick. This is the background of a man whom, you would think, would be biding his time to exact vengeance. Instead, in this time, he found the strength to accept that what had happened to him was terrible, but not indicative of every white person. As he declared in the movie, "What's past is past." Mandela had the wisdom and compassion to realize that forcing restrictions on the whites to induce racial equality, while justified and widely supported, was not the way to get people to cooperate. In the movie, we see him act against his own people in order to hold onto this belief.

It can't be understated how difficult this must have been for this man. Upon leaving prison, Mandela's wife had essentially left him, having had an affair with another man while he had been imprisoned. His own daughter found him to be doddering and naïve. This was a man without a home, with barely a family. Despite this, he found the strength to open his arms to the whites, even though this undoubtedly made him appear to his people as capitulation to the old white oppressors. His own cabinet thought Mandela crazy for doing these sorts of things, but he did them nonetheless, without any support at home or at work, because he thought it was the right thing to do.


In the end, I loved this movie. I learned about Nelson Mandela's greatness while simultaneously understanding the perfectness of his goal, to have South Africa win the rugby cup. The sports segment was predictable, though still engrossing to watch. But what really got me was this snapshot into Nelson Mandela's life, as excellently portrayed by Morgan Freeman. This is yet another movie I've watched recently that makes me want to go out and read a biography. And that desire to learn more is the best thing the movie could do for me.


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