Buy a ticket, get a free Mandela

I’m not a rugby fan, and the glorious historical moment in which Nelson Mandela donned a Springbok jersey and South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup is only dimly part of my consciousness, the residue of what one saw in newspapers and on TV.

But that doesn’t matter because rugby as a game is hardly the key to Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s movie about that historical moment. The big question is: How is Morgan Freeman as Mandela?

And the answer is ... But do you really want to know now, or do you want to read the review? Okay, then, he’s ...
so-so. Now please read the rest of the review.

It’s obviously tricky adapting history, in this case recent history, never mind putting on screen a living historic figure such as Mandela. He’s an icon known the world over, if not from his presence in our lives in South Africa then at least from his charmingly self-deprecating appearances on Oprah.

In South Africa, anyway, his face, his bearing and his speech patterns are so etched upon our collective memory that to have anyone—anyone at all—play Mandela was going to be problematic for us. Even if it’s Morgan Freeman, whom we keep being told was “born” to play the great man.

Let’s deal first with the history question. Invictus (Latin for unvanquished; from an old poem) is adapted from John Carlin’s book of reportage on the period, Playing the Enemy. I am told that some rugbyites have contested parts of Carlin’s account, which is inevitable, because it’s a “first rough draft” of history, as Washington Post publisher Philip Graham put it, or perhaps a second and less rough draft—as in a book.

And it’s inevitable that in redrafting that report as a fictional recreation Clint is going to have to do the requisite kinds of American storytelling, which he’s very good at. For instance, there’s the neatly paired black and white bodyguards, one pair of whom will go through a little emotional trajectory of their own, which peaks in a touching and amusing moment between them.

Anthony Peckham’s script focuses on two people, Mandela and François Pienaar, then captain of the Springboks. The background is sketched in efficiently—we go from Mandela’s release in 1990 to the first free elections in 1994 in a flash, as though they were all part of the same two-minute TV insert. (South African History 1990-1994: A Very Brief Introduction?) The set-up scene feels rather contrived: the cavalcade of Mandela’s release passes between a white school with boys playing rugby on lawns while, over the road and on the other side of a big fence, township kids scuff around a soccer ball in the dust. But I suppose it’s a concisely symbolic way to set the scene, and there’s no point wondering whether the police drove Golfs in those days, or whatever.

The symbolism is ever-present, like a regular drum-beat underneath the storyline’s melody, though by the end it’s pounding through your head like the cheers of a nation of 43-million all supporting one rugby team on one particular day and—of course—the team wins against all the odds. Sorry, was that a spoiler?

The storyline simplifies matters to give us a close-up look at Madiba as he brilliantly uses the World Cup final as part of his project of reconciliation. The film is at pains to show that this isn’t just Mandela being canny: he feels it too, and that’s why it means so much.

Yet much is omitted. Winnie, for instance, is hinted at so fleetingly that I suspect most American cinemagoers will simply be mystified. And there’s no Thabo Mbeki anywhere in sight, but one feels sure that the one-time master of propaganda coups must have been busying himself in the near background, if he didn’t think up the whole thing in the first place.

This is mostly Mandela at home. He’s always at least a little bit on the job all the time, but he has more to do with his personal assistants (Zelda la Grange reincarnated as Leleti Khumalo!) than Cabinet ministers. The minister of sport is, however, on hand to explain things to Madiba—and to us—when necessary. Watching the film, I couldn’t quite remember who the minister of sport was in the first Mandela Cabinet, but by this account he seems to have been a jovial young chap.

The Mandela storyline twines with that of Pienaar and his rugby team, most of whom don’t say much. I don’t think I heard the guy playing Joel Stransky utter one word in the entire film. Pienaar’s father is the emblematic racist Afrikaner, and a muscled-up Matt Damon gets his teeth into a good role that offers him both the convincingly actiony stuff of rugby and the thoughtful passages where (in one instance, with the help of some cinematic trickery) he experiences his own transformation. The Pienaar-Damon half of the story is done well—Damon even manages the South African accent at least as well as Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, perhaps better.

In fact, he’s better than Mandela-Freeman (and there has to be a cryptic-crossword clue in the conjunction of those names). Basically, Freemandela is a sometimes reasonable facsimile of some of Madiba’s expressions, physical and verbal, but that’s about it. This is an impersonation, filled with warmth, but it feels too external. And there are simple tics that register as wrong: Freeman often slouches where Mandela would be stiffly upright, I think; he has little of the regal sternness.

Freeman’s accent is bearable, but will not fall happily on South African ears. We can quibble about that with the great juggernaut of American storytelling if we like, and we will, I’m sure, but there’s little point. It may be impossible, in fact, to reproduce Mandela’s unique speech patterns exactly, though some South African comedians do seem to manage for short stretches. Freeman has to sustain it for a whole film, which is a tough job, and he also has a rather stuffily scripted role to work with. He must be ready at any moment to deliver a heartfelt homily, which he usually does with a wise-old-man twinkle that feels more Freeman than Mandela.

Invictus is a decent way to tell a South African story to other parts of the world, and that’s no doubt a good thing, but for a South African it’s certain to feel odd in any one of a number of places. Each South African is likely to find part of it inauthentic; different South Africans will probably find different parts of it inauthentic, which says something about South Africa.

It certainly manages to build from a rather methodical middle section to a rousing, er, final act—but then that’s the inbuilt advantage of the sports movie. Which, really, is what Invictus is: a glorified sports movie with Mandela as a sort of super-coach. That comes across as reductive, and the film’s dramatic centre is essentially the same as that of Cry Freedom: a contrasted black-white relationship that is supposed to sum up a whole nation’s progress. You can see the narrative appeal, but it feels unbalanced, and it’s ironic that the Pienaar half is better than the Mandela half.

The story itself has ready-made power, though, and good on Clint et al for tackling it. Let’s at least award points for effort. To South African eyes and ears, nobody was going to get Mandela quite right. I don’t think even a South African actor in a local production could have done it, so there’s little hope for an American, albeit a master such as Freeman, doing an impression of the great man and his beloved idiosyncrasies. It may be silly to resent the fact that the Americans tried before we did, but he is an icon—and he’s our icon, dammit.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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