Invictus may not be as popular as this year’s bigger holiday releases, but its poignant themes of justice and peace are both entertaining and redemptive.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus has generated lots of buzz as a potential Oscar contender, and rightly so. But it’s unfortunate that bigger films like Avatar and Sherlock Holmes are drawing more attention from audiences, because Invictus presents a story that’s both entertaining and transformative.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island’s maximum-security prison after 27 years as a political prisoner whose only crime was resisting South Africa’s unjust apartheid laws. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. In 1995, he began to reconcile his country through peace, justice, selflessness, and rugby.
Director Eastwood utilizes the superb talents of Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar) to adapt John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation to the silver screen.
Make no mistake — Invictus is an inspirational sports film. Those hoping for an epic history of Nelson Mandela’s trials and triumphs in office or a deep commentary on South Africa in 1995 will be disappointed. The film paints a decent background of South Africa in the mid-1990s and Eastwood and Freeman intentionally refrain from painting an idyllic picture of Mandela, but these are supportive elements for a story about reconciliation and the power of humility.
Noticing the brokenness of his country, Mandela views the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, as an opportunity to promote a unified national pride. Mandela understands that the Afrikaners (White South Africans) are afraid of his administration and fear exile from a country that has become their home. Instead of exploiting his new position as an office of domination and vengeance, Mandela acts humbly and selflessly. Mandela calls the nation to seek peace not by changing their colors or the name of the Springboks. Rather, he asks his fellow Black citizens, who spent years viewing the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, to embrace the team as their own.
The title “Invictus” (Latin for inconquerable) comes from the poem by William Ernest Henley. Mandela drew strength from Henley’s triumphant text while in prison, and he sends a handwritten copy of the poem to Pienaar to inspire him to lead South Africa’s team to the world championship. The eventual national embrace of the team transforms a symbol of division, racism, and hatred into a symbol of a “Rainbow Nation” growing towards reconciliation.