Hollywood Pretends to Learn from Nelson Mandela

Since its release last December Invictus has caused quite a stir among American movie-goers, garnering relatively high reviews from critics, bagging third place among box-office openers, taking home a series of award nominations, and — perhaps most importantly — winning airtime on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.  But while director Clint Eastwood’s successes with this film are certainly significant, he fails rather miserably at dealing with the one serious issue he sets for himself: race.

Invictus explores the tensions of South Africa’s political transition after 1994 through a look at the controversial leadership decisions of the country’s first majority-elected president, Nelson Mandela, played — not surprisingly — by the inimitable Morgan Freeman.  After his release from prison in 1990 and his assumption of office four years later, Mandela faces a nation reeling from nearly 50 brutal years of apartheid and still rent by racial conflict.

Recognizing the need to encourage reconciliation and create a semblance of national unity along the path to multicultural democracy, Mandela sets his sights on the Springboks, the national rugby team that had for decades stood as a symbol of white — and particularly Afrikaner — domination.  With South Africa set to host the rugby world cup in 1995, Mandela grasps the opportunity to quell white fears of black rule by publically reaching out to the team and creating a relationship with captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who draws from Mandela’s personal gravity inspiration enough to lead the flagging Springboks to international victory.

The critics have rightly noted that the film’s success lies in its power to inspire, to move, to leave audiences touched by the wisdom and grace of an iconic figure who, after 27 years in prison for his activism against apartheid, defied the impulse to vengeance in favor of forgiveness.  And justly so.  Nelson Mandela deserves his place in the annals of history right alongside heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Even the film’s detractors recognize the value of this narrative and focus their critiques on purely technical matters: the narrow, underdeveloped plot, tortured accents, static dialogue, and the painfully predictable conclusion.

Its technical flaws aside, behind the feel-good story there lies something terribly amiss about the film’s message of racial reconciliation.  Any thoughtful South African will tell you that Eastwood has taken the shocking liberty of eviscerating the country’s history in order to coddle American audiences with a rainbow-washed story about race.  Invictus offers precisely the perspective that we want to see: white individuals and black individuals learning to get along, sharing meaningful moments, and getting past their grudges to discover their common humanity.

Like the song “Colorblind” (by Overtone) that Eastwood places at the center of the film, this message is cathartic for white Americans.  Thoroughly apolitical, it empties racism of power and history by reducing it to mere personal prejudice, imagining away the systemic injustices perpetuated by a hundred and fifty years of violent colonial domination, genocide, forced segregation, employment color bars, and disenfranchisement.  The film neglects even passing reference to white expropriation of Africans’ land and their confinement to overpopulated, non-arable, and under-serviced “Native Reserves,” to the system of “Bantu Education” that geared African schools toward making docile black laborers for white-owned industry, and to the veritable slavery ensured by the draconian Pass Laws and the tenant farmer regime.

The legacy of apartheid demonstrates with abundant clarity that racism is never just about prejudice.  It’s about power and profit.  To deny this is to play into the hands of those who seek to retain their powers and profits and resist calls for justice, reparation, and redistribution by insisting that we all just get along.  True reconciliation cannot take place in the absence of justice.  Mandela knows this, despite his appropriation by eager white liberals who sugarcoat his life’s struggle in search of a narrative that will soothe their guilt without demanding substantive systemic change.

Invictus is replete with images that supply this soothing but dangerously misleading tale.  We see Pienaar’s family take their black servant to the final game of the tournament, where maid and madam sit side by side cheering happily for the Springboks.  We see a ragged black street kid sharing a coke with Afrikaner police officers, stopping to listen to the radio broadcast by their car.  At the end, whites and blacks dance together in the streets following the Springboks’ victory in a cathartic demonstration of racial harmony that gives white American audiences exactly what they want.  Racial reconciliation without sacrifice.

Not only are these touching images improbable, they obscure the true nature of precisely that to which they pretend to refer.  In typical liberal fashion, we’re served inter-racial relationships bizarrely emptied of the class exploitation that supplies their form and being.  In a sense, what the film neglects to discuss is the social lot of the maid and the street kid after the orgiastic dancing-in-the-streets is through.

Unfortunately, it’s not only Americans who find comfort in the apolitical message that Invictus supplies.  The reduction of racism to a color problem led the African National Congress to forsake its radical vision for a just society and satisfy itself instead with the darkening of the nation’s political and economic elite.  In the wake of that betrayal, the vast majority of black South Africans remain deeply impoverished, uncertain of how their new non-racial human rights have improved their lot.  While mining magnates and plantation barons continue to rake in obscene profits, as glitzy malls rise and roads swell thick with luxury vehicles, poverty rates hover as high as 65%.  The Rainbow Nation version of racial reconciliation exists at the expense of the millions that constitute this figure.

For South Africa’s massive underclass — and the victims of racism everywhere — the story that Invictus peddles is a story of denial and betrayal.  Eastwood has merely reproduced exactly what we have come to expect of Hollywood on the question of race.  By irresponsibly erasing the relations of power, exploitation, and domination that underpin structural racism like that which characterized apartheid, he doles out cheap reassurances and unwittingly justifies white America’s fantasies about racial reconciliation.  By both obliterating South African history and manipulating the image of Nelson Mandela, Invictus does profound injustice to its subject.

Jason Hickel is an instructor as well as a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology of University of Virginia.

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