UPDATE: Great comment by Dany Fleming:
I’m equally conflicted about the film – though I haven’t actually read the book.
We were living in South Africa (‘92′93) when it was first allowed to emerge from international sports isolation and darkness; an effective tool, in a somewhat sad way, used against Apartheid.
I distinctly remember driving past the stadium in Cape Town as Australia rolled in for SA’s first international Rugby match. Hysteria and jubilation was certainly in the air. By the time I arrived in my local township destination, though, it was a day like any other. No notice of the significant international event taking place a few miles away.
As a former Rugby player, I often stopped by U of Cape Town to watch rugby practices, in total awe of their skill. I really wanted to go to that first match, but didn’t dare complicate things for me.
This film, the Power of One and many of the SA-focused films offer such an interesting paradox. Many of them are compelling and moving stories. To the majority of folks who have such vague understandings of South Africa, they likely offer valuable insights.
However, the idea of another movie relying on a white protagonist hero (as real as the hero may be) always makes me shake my head in frustration. There is more to the story than my self-righteous indignation sometimes allows, though.
A powerful slogan and campaign used by South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement was “freeing our oppressors: freeing ourselves.” It was not a trite slogan.
It was certainly easy to find folks wanting (and working) to substitute the “freeing our oppressors” line with “substitute your favorite bludgeoning verb” our oppressors. That sentiment certainly made sense to me when I arrived. Without a doubt, though, the larger South African anti-Apartheid community was firmly rooted in the idea of “freeing their oppressors.”
This strategy, ironically, looks to make “heroes” out of the very “scoundrels” it’s meant to move out of power. This is certainly amazingly elucidated in Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.”
But this is more than just an effective strategy, it’s an amazingly mature and deeply humane community response led by equally mature and humane leaders. The leadership of Mandela, Tutu, Stephen Biko cannot be overstated. They also had beside them countless lesser-known leaders who rose to the call and challenge as well. They understand that the real hero’s aren’t working for the accolades and credit.
South Africa has always provided me an inspiring and humbling understanding of change. This story represents part of the real strategy and change that occurred. I’m a good bit removed from SA now, but it’s possible the “freeing our oppressors” slogan still has a place in South Africa. Ironically, it’s probably much more difficult to deliver when you’re in power.
It’ll be interesting to see how the film handles this powerful paradox for me. Is it within the consciousness of the filmmakers, completely lost on them or does it occupy somewhere in-between that still has box-office receipts to satisfy?
I imagine I’ll still shake my head at the end – a response I think I’ve conditioned in myself. But there is that place in me that understands the powerful “freeing” message that is making its way overseas from South Africa to here – one that many South African’s see as very strategic and very important. So, I’ll deal with my paradox.
MY ORIGINAL POST:
For millions of South Africans, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an iconic moment.
Just a year removed from the nation’s first free and democratic elections, the Rainbow Nation played host to the world’s third quadrennial rugby championships in its return to the global sporting stage.
After upsetting defending champion Australia in the opening, the Springboks, who had formerly been one of the bastions of the apartheid regime, used a combination of a rugged defense, a bit of luck in the semifinals against the French squad and the support that only a hometown crowd liberated from centuries of oppression can offer.
Francois Pienaar, a burly flanker and descendant of French Huguenots, led the team.
The finals pitted South Africa against the mighty and heavily favored All Blacks of New Zealand. The vaunted Kiwis featured the enormous and scarily swift Jonah Lomu, a 6’7″ , 250-pound Maori winger. Lomu had run wild while scoring four tries in the semifinals against England, including a trampling/bowling over of fullback Mike Catt.
The South Africans had another weapon, though: President Nelson Mandela.
Now 91 years old, Mandela appears rarely in public, walks with a cane and has trouble hearing.
It was a different story 14 years ago.
Mandela’s pre-Finals locker room visit is credited by a number of players with having inspired them to even greater levels of exertion and helped them realize that they were playing more than a game-they were playing for racial reconciliation.
Mandela’s donning the green Springboks jersey and cap and prowling the sidelines sent the message to all South Africans that the days of sports being the exclusive province of one race or another were over.
In the ceremony after the thrilling match, Mandela said, “Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”
“No, Mr. President,” said Pienaar, who had never questioned apartheid during his youth. ”Thank you for what you have done for our country.”
I imagine that I will eventually see the film, and know right away that there are some challenges. While Freeman has played a black South African before in The Power of One, and has certainly come a long way since his days on public television’s The Electric Company, he has grabbed more headlines offscreen for an alleged affair with his step-granddaughter.
For his part, Damon, who hails from Cambridge, has twice demonstrated his proficiency at Boston accents, but will likely be harder pressed to display similar mastery of Afrikaans speech patterns. Beyond that, he is half a foot and more than 60 pounds smaller than Pienaar was when the tournament occurred
My anticipatory objections to the movie aside, I recommend the book.
Beyond recreating the Springboks’ magical run, Playing the Enemy takes the reader through Mandela’s unparalleled ability to negotiate from a position of strength and shared humanity, even as he was imprisoned and the ANC was banned.
Much has been written recently about how far South Africa has fallen since the promise of its early post-apartheid years. For a reminder of a brief shining moment in which much, if not all seemed possible, read Carlin’s book.