Clint Eastwood. Morgan Freeman. Matt Damon. This iconic Hollywood team, weighing in as director/producer, actor/executive producer, and actor respectively, is the venerated brand behind the highly anticipated film “Invictus,” which will be released on December 11. The film, which, due to global time zone differences, will premiere first in South Africa and hours later in the United States, also has another world-renowned identifying brand: Nelson “Madiba” Mandela.
Based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by the British author/journalist John Carlin, “Invictus” is an uplifting, eye-opening true story wrapped in a rugby game that challenges humanity to be more human. The screenplay, written by the South African screenwriter Anthony Peckham, constructs an unlikely partnership between two racially diverse, multi-generational South Africans who grew up in a world shaped by apartheid.
On the one hand, there is the newly elected elder, President Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (Morgan Freeman), a Black South African and former anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned for 27 years for his stance against the policies of racial discrimination that oppressed Blacks while maintaining white supremacy in the nation. Then there is the young Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the white South African captain of the nation’s underdog rugby team, the Springboks, who grew up on the privileged side of the racial divide.
“Invictus” opens sometime in 1994, the year Mandela was elected president. As the new leader, he is totally cognizant that while apartheid has been officially dismantled, the racial hatred between Blacks and whites is still the reality of the day. At this crucial, transitional time in South Africa’s history, a divine opportunity presents itself in the form of the 1995 World Cup Finals, which South Africa is set to host. The astute Mandela sees this window and immediately whips into motion a plan to utilize the popular sport of rugby to unite the country behind their national team, the Springboks.
However, there is one major drawback to this idea: Though South Africans love the game of rugby, the citizens are at odds when it comes to the Springboks, who are well-loved by the whites and despised by the Blacks. Acknowledging the color divide, Mandela, who dreams of a beautiful “rainbow nation,” moves ahead to implement his plan, starting with the Springbok’s colors of green and gold.
This intimate yet far reaching Warner Bros. Pictures presentation scores green for predicted high box office revenues and gold for a gentle, yet hard-hitting film that speaks to the human soul.
“Invictus” also scores voluminous points for Eastwood’s flawless directing, and for Freeman and Damon’s brilliant acting. In addition, the superb South African talent that serves to enrich the film is right on point, relative to Mandela’s “rainbow nation” philosophy, as well as from a global filmmaking perspective. As such, Leleti K. Humalo (Mary) and Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko) portray two strong and powerful women as Mandela’s right hand administrators. In addition, both Tony Kgoroge (Mandela’s security guard Jason Tshabalala) and Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy, Mandela’s security guard) are also well cast.
Following a recent special screening at the WB lot in Burbank, Calif., a subsequent press conference at the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. ensued with Freeman, Damon, Peckham the screenwriter, the real life Pienaar as well as the producers Robert Lorenz, Lori McCreary and Mace Neufeld.
Freeman shared that he was chosen by Mandela, who, in essence, told him over a decade ago that if there was to be a film made about him, he would like the actor to portray him. Consequently, Freeman and his producing partner, Lori McCreary, over the past decade tried to find the right Mandela vehicle. He finally opted for Carlin’s book, which was adapted by Peckham, who he highly praised for writing a great script. “If we listen to the angels of our nature, there is a solution,” Freeman said. “This is a good thing to put out there, especially now.”
Damon shared that at age 19, “I remember Mandela coming to Boston my freshman year at Harvard. It was big…yes, the Boston visit by Mandela was very big. I react more strongly to things that have some social value. [‘Invictus’] is a non-partisan message of healing and coming together.”
Eastwood (with whom I shared an elevator ride) best summarizes the key role played by Mandela in the film. “I think [Mandela] demonstrated great wisdom in incorporating sport to reconcile his country. He knows he needs to pull everybody together, to fund a way to appeal to their national pride–one thing, perhaps the only thing, they had in common at that time. He knows the white population and the Black population will ultimately have to work together as a team or the country will not succeed, so he shows a lot of creativity using a sports team as a means to an end.”
This philosophy of working together is paramount. For Mandela, it began by first working on himself. In the film, the noble poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which sustained Mandela during his almost three decades of imprisonment at Robben Island, is eloquently voiced by Freeman as Mandela, who is shown in a surreal black-and-white scene toiling and breaking rocks.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.”
This powerful metaphor of Mandela silently breaking rocks–breaking the chains of racism and prejudice–to create his dream of a “rainbow nation,” richly colors “Invictus,” an inspirational film that reaches deep down into the bruised soul, purging then awakening the best in mankind to be truly human. And yes, there is also the interesting game of rugby, which, as Peckham explains, is “about big men running and hitting each other very hard.” Eastwood. Freeman. Damon. Mandela. They hit very hard with “Invictus.” And in doing so, score victoriously.