“Invictus” : From a Different Perspective

For two hours, I forgave Clint Eastwood for making “Gran Torino.” As a serious race scholar, you may ask how I could possibly have given him a second chance. I forgave him because I am a rugby fanatic. I fell in love with the sport in 1995, the same year in which Eastwood’s newly released  “Invictus” is set.  For months leading up to this December’s release of Invictus, I had been inundated with trailer previews (opens video), articles and advertisements on my favorite rugby blogs and news sites, along with Facebook invitations to opening day of the film. I struggled with my racial understandings and my desire for my beloved sport to get some actual media attention.

“Invictus” is the screen adaptation of John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and The Game That Changed a Nation. The movie follows Nelson Mandela in his first term as the South African president. Mandela, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, has the difficult job of uniting a splintered apartheid-torn South Africa. Mandela recruits the captain of South Africa’s rugby team to help him use the 1995 rugby World Cup to bring the nation together. I knew better than to believe a Hollywood film. I know that the story was told through the eyes of someone white in South Africa. However, I could not resist a good fairy tale. I got teary on at least two occasions while watching the film, thinking that rugby could bring enemies together.  It’s not such a far-fetched idea;it happens all the time after grueling matches between bitter rivals.

However, Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is just another work of fiction. Mandela as represented here is a man who remains ever hopeful to appeal to the better side of whites. In the film, Mandela is a de-radicalized figure who personifies the notion that non-white activists and leaders should rely exclusively on forgiveness, understanding, and nonviolence for any hope of racial progress. There are moments in the film where you see blatant white racism. To Eastwood’s credit, racism in South African is portrayed as institutionalized and systemic; yet after two hours South Africa’s problems are a thing of the past after the national team wins the Rugby World Cup.

Following the film, I did some looking around online to get a different perspective of “Invictus.” I stumbled upon this comment by someone named Batanai posting at the NYTimes’ review of “Invictus.” Batanai’s comment really shed a different light on the film for me:

I Remember ’95, Didn’t Like It!

I remember a very different sentiment when this rugby match took place; Mandela and the Blacks had been following the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe before him, offering the hand of reconciliation to the previously oppressive Whites. And, as had happened in Zimbabwe, the Whites in SA continued to spurn, even spit on this open embrace. That Mandela continued to seek acceptance from these people (instead of the other way round), grated a lot of us in the African community.

The Whites begrudgingly, but only temporarily, unclenched their fists after Mandela showed up at “their” rugby game, dressed in the full colors of the sport. It did not however, take long for them to go back to their angry and condescending ways as they sued and hauled Mandela to court over his push for more racial inclusion in the rugby sport!

Apparently, the Whites were (and many still are) more comfortable with the Blacks compromising themselves with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation from the former.

Which is why many Africans like me a very uncomfortable with the western halo over Mandela. He is hailed as an icon of forgiveness, an example for Blacks to follow in their dealings with races that have been abusive to them. People like me do not understand why forgiveness should be a virtue imposed on Africans and angrily discarded when going after “uncooperative” Africans….
The West is incapable of forgiveness, yet it demands the “weaker” peoples be forgiving of THEIR abuse!

The Mandela that fought for his people’s political liberation, I admire. The one that fought for the economic status quo while President, I am uncomfortable with. The post-political haloed Mandela, the one crafted in western media as an example for Africans and all previously oppressed people to follow, the one that values forgiveness over economic justice, the one that does not upset the current power structure and packing order, this Mandela I REJECT.

Batanai, Washington

Eastwood celebrates the de-radicalized Mandela by sinking millions of dollars into a film paying homage to a black man unflinchingly forgiving of whites. A friend asked if the timing of this movie was coincidental with Obama’s election. In both cases, there was so much “hope” that the nation would reach new heights of racial harmony by electing a non-white leader. However, we see that it’s not just that easy.

As for the magic of sport making the world a better place, we must also be very cautious in declaring victory over social inequality. Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs was a glorious moment in sports history, but that feat did not defeat sexism at the end of the day. We still have long way to go as we see barbaric “gender testing” measures being taken on South African Sprinter, Caster Semenya because no “woman” could have a physique like her.

South Africa’s triumph over New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup was an amazing feat by an underdog team. However, it did not create a nation of racial harmony as suggested by both Carlin and Eastwood. I truly appreciated the two hours of make-believe, but after leaving the theater I understood that there is still much more work for me and other scholars and activists to do.

Societal Equality Means Better Health and Wellbeing

I just got this notice about a CDC presentation on how inequality/equality shapes major aspects of every society:

The Division of Violence Prevention and the CDC/ATSDR Social Determinants of Health Equity Work Group invite you to attend a presentation: “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham and Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York (Tuesday, January 5th – 9:30-10:30AM, Chamblee 106, 1A-B).

The summary of their presentation is suggestive of deep structural issues:

Among high income countries, comparisons of life expectancy, mental health, levels of violence, teen birth rates, child wellbeing, obesity rates, the educational performance of school children, or the strength of community life tend to be fairly consistent: countries which tend to do well on one of these measures tend to do well on all of them and countries which do badly on one, tend to do badly on all. What accounts for the difference? The key is the amount of inequality in each society. The picture is consistent whether we compare rich countries or the 50 states of the USA. The more unequal a society, the more ill health and social problems it has. This presentation will provide an overview of the theory and evidence for how income inequality affects well-being and examples of strategies that are being adopted based on these research findings.

Richard Wilkinson has a recent book, written with Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009). He is also a founder of The Equality Trust “to increase public understanding of the damaging effects on societies of large inequalities in income and wealth (www.equalitytrust.org.uk).”

One review of The Spirit Level on Amazon notes that in the book:

Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world, but they do not simply provide a diagnosis of our woes. They offer readers a way toward a new political outlook, shifting from self-interested consumerism to a friendlier, more sustainable society. The Spirit Level is pioneering in its research, powerful in its revelations, and inspiring in its conclusion: Armed with this new understanding of why communities prosper, we have the tools to revitalize our politics and help all our fellow citizens, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.

Moving to class, racial, and gender equality means moving to healthier societies.