“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.


  1. No1KState

    Great post, Rosalind. Thanks. I really liked this quote from Batanai:

    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!

    So true.

  2. Illusions

    “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!”

    I would say that this person feels this way because they misunderstand who forgiveness is for, really. You dont forgive others for their sake. You forgive them for your own. I have not forgiven the people in my life who have wronged me so that they may sleep easier, or to prove my nobility to the world. I did it so that I can sleep easy. And so that I can live without hatred in my heart, eating at me, and causing me to behave in ways that undermine my current and future prospects.

    You forgive for your own sake. Its better for you. That it also often has the effect of making a former enemy into a friend is secondary to that.

  3. victorray

    This is a great post. I saw the movie and was just discussing with my partner the parallels between this portrayal of Mandela and the sanitized version of the civil rights movement (and Dr. King in particular) we get every year through black history month. I love the phrasing of “post-political” to sum up what whites consider acceptable behavior from black social leaders. Thanks again for the post.

  4. Rosalind Author

    Perhaps Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda? However, there are problematic issues with the movie just glazing over the role of the racist ideology by German colonialists differentiating the Hutu and Tutsi.

  5. No1KState

    Thanks Rosalind. I had forgotten about that one.

    So many Hollywood movies based in Africa star white hero(ine)s, it’s a little insulting, to be quite honest. Even BLOOD DIAMOND and now INVICTUS.

    I agree with your assesment about the oversight in HOTEL RWANDA. In the collective American memory, it was just one African tribe killing another, and they’ve been doing that for centuries. . . . Cause not only did Germany not cause the rift between the Tutsi and the Hutu, the Western world is devoid of such tribalism. The 100 Years War, the Prussian War, King George’s War, Queen Ann’s War, the Crusades, the slave trade, WWs 1 and 2, and the “cold” war all notwithstanding. With the skant exception of the protracted resistance in Ireland and the genocide of Kosovo, of course.

    It’s kinda interesting when you think about it. The mainsteam stereotypes racists as being ignorant rednecks and hillbillies, as though everyone else is sophisticated and urbane. In response, anti-racists try to make the point that one’s manners and education have nothing to do with one’s racial bias. But in the end, the way so many people are able to compartmentalize and hold on to contradictory ideas . . . even the most urbane and sophisticate are often ignorant and racist, too. Case in point, Srg Crowley of the Cambridge police, or (cause I don’t care to have to argue whether or not he’s racist with anyone), at least 4 if not 5 justices of the SCOTUS and a good number of Congresspeople.

  6. Adia Harvey

    Rosalind, what a great post. I would just add that I read a recent article about Clint Eastwood in GQ, where he did specifically draw parallels b/w this film (and Mandela) and Obama. I recall him stating that dialogue has grown tense and argumentative, and stated as evidence Obama’s “blaming the white cops” (in the Gates situation) and Carter’s assertion that “everyone who opposes the president is racist.” Interesting how Obama’s claim that “the police acted stupidly” (based on an arrest that in this case had no legal standing) and citing the fact of racial profiling becomes construed as anti-white and problematic, and how Carter’s words become distorted to the statement that anyone who opposes the president is racist, when that is in fact NOT what he said. But I think Eastwood’s comments in the GQ piece seem to suggest that he’d like to see a more sanitized, Mandela-ized, “de-radicalized” version of Obama (and I say that full aware of the irony). After the debacle that was Gran Torino, I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyway, thanks again for your great work here.

  7. Kristen

    Excellent post and discussion. It does seem that the production and release of this film in the first year of Obama is timely. Thanks to Adia for sharing Eastwood’s rather revealing comments. And I wonder, Rosalind, if you have revoked your forgiveness?

    I also think there’s something insidious about Hollywood “true story” movies in that they are powerful creators of collective memory. Admittedly, I was a teenager in the mid-’90s (and out of touch with anything on the world stage), but I would wager that, before this film, there was little to no memory in the States of Mandela’s first year and of the rugby match. No doubt this 2-hour treatment will become the backbone of our knowledge of the kind of person/leader Mandela was when he took office.

    I would argue also that the assumption that we are watching the “true story” creates a unique dynamic for viewers. I’m thinking now of how viewers must contrast in their minds a film like Invictus versus one like Inglourious Basterds, where it’s clear that the filmmaker took a lot of creative license with the rendering of facts. For example, in one of my Intro to Sociology courses this fall, a group was presenting (what was supposed to be) a critical analysis of the film Coach Carter and stated that the story was “99% true.” Really?! Appalling to me, but people believe somehow that a blockbuster mainstream screenplay can, with razor-sharp accuracy, condense a year-long series of events into a 90- or 120-minute product.

    • Rosalind Author

      In response to your question Kristen “And I wonder, Rosalind, if you have revoked your forgiveness?”

      I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. I do forgive Clint Eastwood, still. If we think about shows the use of the white racial frame, to me would only seem logical that white stray to maintain the status quo. In the case of Eastwood, I do believe they he feels like he’s doing something racially progressive. In an earlier remark, illusions said that forgiveness is often about the individual. So, forgiving racist actors in many ways is the technique I used to survive. I don’t want hate, anger, and bitterness to build up inside of me. As we’ve read here and on this site, there are real and alarming health disparities between whites and people of color. I do not want the stress from living in a racist society to weigh me down one has to. That does not mean that I believe that ignorant individuals only enact racism. Racism is based on whiteness as it contrasts to people of color. That does mean that we as people of color can participate in their own impression. Sometimes, failing to forgive is the way that we do that. I do not endorse acting as a doormat, on the contrary, I believe in direct and assertive actions when addressing discrimination of any kind. I just believe that we cannot take for granted the role that structure plays in shaping individuals of dominant groups. So, I cannot expect anything more from Clint Eastwood and I can definitely expect less. That doesn’t mean I won’t strive to make the world a better place. I just can’t hold on to anger about Eastwood as individual.

      • Kristen

        I was mostly in jest with my question, but I your response is most thoughtful and insightful. From my interviews I’ve heard so many times, like a mantra among older whites, that people of color, most especially black Americans, need to stop “holding on” to feelings of mistreatment and “move on.” You provide a great response to their patronizing “advice”: I will forgive when I deem it prudent – and for my own sake, not for your comfort.


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