Thursday, January 13, 2011

Invictus as a 2009 American Film

(This was written for a political science class. I think I went a little overboard with the Mandela/Obama parallel because I needed to write something to meet the minimum limit, but I wholeheartedly stand by the ‘terrorist threat’ part.)

The 2009 American movie Invictus depicts the beginning of the administration of President Nelson Mandela of the country of South Africa in the years 1994 and 1995 (Invictus). The movie is about how Mandela helped to overcome the lingering prejudices left over from the apartheid regime by unifying the black and white peoples of his nation over the national rugby team playing in and winning the World Cup. Invictus can be analyzed in the context of when it was produced and for whom. Specifically, Invictus functions as an idealistic American celebration of revolution for a just cause and of the ideal of ending racial prejudice, created for the contemporary American people with characters and situations directly relatable. Mandela holds some similarities to President Barack Obama of the United States, both being the first black presidents of their nations, and we as an audience are meant to identify with him as the enlightened hope for the future. Invictus presents an apparently successful struggle to reach a utopian ideal of racial equality in such a way that it arrives in a position to ease the existing racial tensions of the contemporary United States under Barack Obama.

Invictus is timely for the American people with its message of overcoming prejudice at a time when it is possible for a black man to become a serious contender for president. While Invictus was released after Obama became president, it was produced the year before when Obama was only campaigning for the presidency, so Invictus’ analogy works primarily in the speculative sense that Obama had the potential to be president. In an era that reveres Martin Luther King as a hero and where there exists a sentiment striving to eradicate the lingering institutional racism through allowing a black man to finally be president, the movie comes as a message of the hope for racial equality that the American people are intended to endorse. While not certain that Obama would win the presidency, the chance that he would allows for the film’s release to occur at a time when Obama would be a new president and in the midst of existing racial tension that could be analogous to that faced by Mandela as President of South Africa. Because of his similarity to Obama, Mandela is accepted as our protagonist and as an analog to the contemporary American culture.

Mandela’s opponents, the racist white people who are bitter about him ascending to power, are portrayed in a manner akin to disliked people who are opposed to racial equality and what is the American standard of living. The common white citizens of South Africa are comparable to segments of the American population who would engage in racist stereotyping against Obama. One of the movie’s first lines of dialog is a white man telling young students that Mandela is a “terrorist” and that the country is going to the dogs. This evokes the frequent depiction of Obama as a Muslim terrorist by his critics, such as was referenced in the cover of the New Yorker magazine of July 21, 2008 (Lewis). Mandela was arrested for terrorism for his work in leading the Umkhonto we Sizwe (translated as “Spear of the Nation”), which was a division of the left-wing political party African National Congress that engaged in sabotage and prepared to engage in guerilla warfare against the apartheid regime, and he was sent to prison for it. While the African National Congress was given the status of a terrorist organization by the South African government and Mandela was on United States records as a terrorist until 2008 ("BBC News"), Mandela held a philosophy of nonviolence based on that of Gandhi and didn’t take the revolution any farther than sabotage to not have to shed blood (Mandela). Mandela’s label as a terrorist is disrespected by the movie and he is instead honored as a peaceable revolutionary, to which comparison can be made with American social rights hero Martin Luther King in a country that already loves revolution like that which led to the country’s creation.

Mandela is so strongly equated with the contemporary American administration that the movie creates a moment comparable to American action-dramas following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. What is historically an innocent commercial stunt is transformed into a potential terrorist attack. Historically, a jumbo jet from South African Airways was hired for $40,000 to fly over the stadium baring the message “Good luck, Bokke” on the underside of the plane to show support for the South African rugby team Springboks, for which “Bokke” is a slang reference ("Rugby Worldcup Flyover.session-01.mp4"). This was an official stunt of which those in charge would have been aware. In the movie, however, the jet plane flyover is painted as a terrifying moment where Mandela’s security detail is worried about it being a terrorist attack. This moment is set up by a preceding scene where a security person cautions his staff to be on high alert because Mandela will be exposed and all it would take is one person thinking he’s a hero or that God’s talking to him to put the president’s life in danger. We are then shown a series of shots of the pilot suspiciously scoping out the stadium and later telling his copilot that he’s taking control of the plane and that anything that happens will be his responsibility. The security detail becomes extremely nervous as the plane approaches and then there is a moment of relief when the message is revealed, and the pilot is cast as merely a reckless Springbok fan rather than a terrorist. This retelling and corruption of history speaks to the culture of post-9/11 America in a way meant to unnerve us and it makes us identify more strongly with Mandela and his regime.

In conclusion, the 2009 American film Invictus presents an idealistic struggle for racial equality in which the protagonists are apparently successful. While about historical events in South Africa fifteen and fourteen years ago, the material is presented in such a way that it is easily comparable to the current administration and focus of the United States. Invictus shows us a utopian victory of black and white people joining together in spirit over the national sport and losing their hostility to one another, becoming patriotic and more accepting of the changed order. The storytellers use the utopian vision as a way to communicate their political messages and influence the audience (Van Belle, and Mash 13). Work first started on Invictus when Obama was a potential presidential candidate, and it was released after he became president, arriving at a time when there is similar political discord regarding the black president. Invictus functions as a way to drive home the concept of racial equality that would be relevant for American citizens living under Obama’s administration to subdue existing racial tensions and bring black people and white people together in similar nationalistic spirit for the idealistic goal of a post-racial society.

Work Cited

Invictus. Dir. Clint Eastwood." Perf. Freeman, Morgan. Warner Bros. Pictures: 2009, Film.

Lewis, Paul. "New Yorker's 'terrorist' Obama cover under fire." Guardian Media Group, 14 Jul 2008. Web. 23 Oct 2010. < >.

Mandela, Nelson. "The Sacred Warrior." Time 31 Dec 1999. Web. 25 Oct 2010. <,9171,993025,00.html >.

"Rugby Worldcup Flyover.session-01.mp4." Web. 25 Oct 2010. < >.

"US shamed by Mandela terror link." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 10 April 2008. Web. 25 Oct 2010. < >.

Van Belle, Douglas A., and Kenneth M. Mash. A Novel Approach to Politics. 2nd. Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010. 13. Print.

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