Matt Damon saves South Africa

As you may have figured out my now (from my earlier post), I don’t particularly like the idea behind “Invictus.” I’ve seen it to and had to prevent myself from walking out of the theater a few times for its historical inaccuracies, banal “rainbow” politics, and reducing South Africa’s political transition to being dependent on an outcome of a rugby march. Not surprisingly, most critics love the film in which Matt Damon saves South Africa and gets whites absolved for Apartheid by winning a rugby match. Although there are exceptions, like Ella Taylor in “The Village Voice.”

Here are some excerpts:

Like every Eastwood production, Invictus is stately, handsomely mounted, attentive to detail right down to the Marmite adorning the team’s breakfast buffet, and relentlessly conventional. As a portrait of a hero, the movie effortlessly brings a lump to the throat … as history, it is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion …The powerful dislike between Mandela’s black and white bodyguards melts into reverence for their leader and joint cheerleading for the team. Within minutes of their enforced arrival in the shantytowns, the Springboks … are happily hoisting adoring little black boys onto their shoulders. Pienaar’s parents’ maid gets tickets to the cup final, where she and the mistress sit side-by-side, rib-poking with every home-team score.

Never mind that many white supremacists fled abroad to seethe in safety over the end of white privilege. Never mind that the ANC, the very movement that had worked for years to free Mandela and bring down apartheid, is confined here to a lone reductive scene that dismisses a complex resistance group as a bunch of thuggish ideologues …

That Mandela is a great man is beyond dispute—but that’s no excuse to position him in a Great Man theory of history …

… [F]or all [Mandela’s] lovely manners, his donations to worthy causes, his insistence on pouring his own tea, or even his high-minded dedication to reconciling former enemies, South Africa today is a muddle of hope and despair.

For the record, I cried my way through the climactic game, with all its kitschy slow-mo lopes around the pitch, its roar of the crowd and peripheral melodrama. But I came out feeling had. How Invictus will play in the North American multiplex (foreign sport + foreign country = not promising) is a lot less interesting than its reception in Johannesburg and—perhaps more significantly—in the townships, where conditions remain abysmal and communities are decimated by a long-untended AIDS epidemic that makes our own crisis look like a tea party. Today’s South Africa has been many decades in the making, and it is the product not of one good man but of movements full of courageous men and women who almost certainly rose to power before they were ready. But as they say in the pitch meetings, where’s the glamour in that?

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7 thoughts on “Matt Damon saves South Africa

  1. The section labeled, “Uneven Portrayals” in this LA Times piece is also interesting. It highlights the fact that Hollywood, or Hollywood-style films, find it difficult to tell a South African story (or African story for that matter) without a white, usually male lead. It also details the issues surrounding American actors playing the roles of South Africans.
    Speaking of… Jennifer Hudson is playing Winnie Mandela in a new Darrell Roodt film?

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-south-africa8-2009nov08,0,2541143.story

  2. It might have taken a long time but unlike the USA, Australia and South America, South Africa’s democracy is not based on the genocide of the insdiginous population.

    • Nice one!

      Ken Byerley // December 11, 2009 at 12:49 am | Reply

      It might have taken a long time but unlike the USA, Australia and South America, South Africa’s democracy is not based on the genocide of the insdiginous population.

  3. Ken, come again?

    If South Africa’s democracy isn’t based on the genocide of the indigenous population, whose genocide is it based on? For genocide there was.

    Wait, maybe I need to look genocide up in the dictionary. Let’s say many, many, many folks were killed on the road to this democracy. The famous ones (Hector Peterson, Biko, Mahlangu, Bram Fischer, Bheki Mlangeni, and others) and the not so famous ones, and the unknown.

    Apartheid didn’t just kill people directly, it killed them indirectly as well in many ways like denial of medical care and of other life-saving rights.

    South Africa’s democracy is based on the genocide of the indigenous population, killed from the days of Chaka and Moshoeshoe until just a few years ago.

  4. “… as history, it is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion … The powerful dislike between Mandela’s black and white bodyguards melts into reverence for their leader and joint cheerleading for the team. ”

    That’s in the book, too and comes from interviews with Linga Moonsamy the head bodyguard for the final. Of course the author (John Carlin) could be twisting his words and, yes, it may be selective, but I’m not sure if it’s up to a film reviewer to say whether that’s truth or not.

  5. Huh, what film where you watching?

    Not in the film, not in the notes, no where does it say that Matt Damon’s character Pienaaar saved South Africa.

    We know why Matt Damon is in the film – to sell tickets. And to sell tickets only.

    I can see how you might arrive at the thought the Pienaar (Damon) saved South Africa since it is his face we see in the poster.

    But you can’t possibly say or think this after watching the film.

    For the record, the scenes of the climatic overtime victory by the Bokkes, were rather flat. Eastwood chose to cross cut between the play action of the field, the spectators in the crowd, the black bar in the township, the elegant rugby party in some home, and the two cops and the kid listening to the game on the radio outside of the stadium.

    I thought it decidedly lacked drama. Maybe here in the USA, we are so used to being told what we are watching by a play-by-play announcer, an analyst, and a colorman that the lack of same in the film denied us the excitement.

    If this film reaches Oscar territory (nomination or award) it will be for the wrong reasons – This WAS and IS a good story, but this just isn’t a great film by any means.

    Satisfying – Of course – but no more than that.

    I have my own write up the film:
    http://jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/invictus-clint-eastwoods-new-film/

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