February 11, 2010


Let me start my review of Clint Eastwood's latest film with an admission. I do not think there is a reviewer alive who could see this film and not be swept away with its portrait of Nelson Mandela. Whatever else we disagree on, one thing that many people share is a desire for a colour blind society in which white, black, brown and yellow women and men could succeed and prosper as much as each other regardless of the colour of their skin. How we get there is another matter and not one I want to get into- but any film that lauds the principle that the world ought to be colour blind and that South Africa in particular in 1995 should have been colour blind will instantly get cheers from Gracchi. Dispassionate analysis of this film's theme- the forgiveness shown by its Mandela to his white opressors and the courage that it took for some White South Africans to realise that the system they lived with for years, Apartheid, was a pernicious and unjust one- will reveal it to be sound. In a sense this makes the film's job easier and harder: both because we immediately have an emotional connection to it and because it has to do more than just persuade us that racism is wrong and forgiveness is right, but amazing.

This film is about the story of South Africa's Rugby World Cup- the moment when Francois Pienaar held the trophy aloft and Nelson Mandela wore a springboks cap- both neat symbols of a South Africa that might become a rainbow nation. It tells the stories that lead to that moment: the difficulties that Mandela had persuading his comrades in the ANC to accomodate Afrikaaners- both in the sense of the Afrikaans security guards joining the President's security detail and in the sense of blacks embracing the Springboks, an emblem at that point of Apartheid. Alongside that we have the story of black liberation- everywhere in the film is the sense of blacks beggining to 'own' South Africa, most pointedly in Pienaar's famous statement that 43 million South Africans had cheered and 'owned' his team and their victory. This is a story of triumph and magnanimity- and at the centre of it is Mandela himself, a man who has become elevated to modern sainthood, whether legitimately or not.

If that were all then this film would not be as good as it is. At the heart of it though is another point about symbols. Mandela teaches his followers that the Springboks were as important to the Afrikaaners as economic development and foreign ties. The Springboks were a symbol or are a symbol in the world of the film that Mandela's South Africa will not be Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The point that Mandela makes repeatedly to those who doubt his stance is that if you embrace a people's imagery, you embrace them. Politics is conducted not in the realm of tax cuts and rises but in the realm of imagery- all the way through the film Mandela's principle concern is with the use and form of imagery. He wishes to give his new state an iconography which will subsume (not as some of his followers want, replace) the old iconography. So the Springboks will take to the field wearing the green and gold but will sing an African not an Afrikaans song. Mandela's efforts appear, in the world of the film, to succeed and that is perhaps the real importance of this film in that it is a film about the power of an image to establish a constitution.

We might take this analysis to another level in that Mandela himself as the film continues becomes an image of the new South Africa. Pienaar recognises this in Mandela's cell on Robben Island, this man endured so much and forgave so many for it. Mandela, as played by Morgan Freeman, is a charming man, a witty man but a profoundly reverent man. He stands up for forgiveness against his own people and his own advisors. He believes in a leader who leads by example. Mandela becomes a key image and no more so than at the end of the film where his appearance on the field is the counterpoint to the New Zealand Haka, he has become the ritual dance of reconciliation within the new South Africa.

Does it have any failures? Well yes it does. South Africa's history has not been an uncomplicated journey from Apartheid to the rainbow nation- it has not possibly arrived there yet. It would have been better to see some of that complication visible in the film. The victory in 1995 was not neccessarily the start of a wonderful era- it was the expression of a hope which remains important but which has not yet been fully achieved and could easily fall away. The neatness of the ending to what is afterall a tale of contemporary history presumes that history has an end- that a process does not continue when of course it does continue. South Africa has had no eucatastrophic moment of racial harmony. Very few of the other ANC characters are developed apart from Mandela and though the story is partly told through his security detail, emphasizing his vulnerability, there is no sense here of a cinematic image that reflects forward into the times of Mbeki and Zuma for South Africa.

I do not mean to carp though- there is something noble about the film and if it has imperfections (this is no character study), it isn't trying to have those perfections. Take it for what it is, a film about a great moment and a good man- and forget the rest. Whatever happens next in South Africa, the film's vision of a multi-racial South Africa deserves celebration and this is the carnival film with which to do it.


Anonymous said...

Great review. I agree with you. The film from an "artistic" or "technical" view is not the best of Eastwood. In this sense, I prefered Gran Torino or Million Dollar Baby. But from the human point of view it´s, in my opinion, his best film. Whether it´s completly accurate or if South Africa is nowadays what´s represented in the film, is not the most important. The most important is that for a few moments a man and a rugby team were able to unite an nation that had been separated for years and years due the most unjust system.

Ashok said...

Enjoyed the review, put it on Stumbleupon - hope it gets a bit more attention.