Tuesday 20th February 2018,

“Invictus” and the Politics of Idealism

I tend to avoid in films what we see in Invictus: rugby, sports, Matt Damon, Morgan-Freeman-as-Deity-figure, sports, and Clint Eastwood. I should be ashamed of avoiding Eastwood, but his recent films have often been marketed as morally simplistic (and his Republicanism doesn’t help): we know with whom we are supposed to identify and who is evil (exceptions might be Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). Yet Eastwood’s films are majestic, regal, and magnanimous.

Invictus is, in fact, morally simplistic: we root for South Africa and deify Mandela. But it’s nonetheless an important meditation on the politics of idealism, a film particularly relevant for Americans right now, especially progressives trying to make sense of the 2008 election. Invictus shows us idealism, even amidst mounting reasons for pessimism, is necessary.

It’s telling the first half of the film focuses on politics. In the movie, the mostly white (save one) rugby team is despised by blacks and beloved by whites. Mandela decides to actively support rugby as a way of letting whites know they should not fear him or black people and uniting the country. Throughout, black people try to rid the country of the team, and push back at Mandela’s efforts (like hiring white bodyguards) at inclusion.

(I’ll confess my ignorance of South African and rugby history, but for my argument I’ll focus simply on the film as a rhetorical tool.)

In Invictus, Clint Eastwood employs his skill at portraying drama — high contrast colors, steady cameras filming tense scenes, sweeping scores — to paint the struggle for South Africa’s soul as operatic and vital. The moral imperative is obvious: racial unity, “reconciliation” and graciousness. Invictus is clearly global — and so will do very well, if only because rugby is popular — but the message works really well in America right now. When black people have “won” they must learn forgiveness and understanding; when white people find their power taken away, they must learn to lower their pride. It’s complicated, of course: winning a presidency doesn’t mean the fight for true equality is over; nor does it mean the bad people go away. But we all have a mutual responsibility to try to come together.

Sports offer an ideal window into these tensions, and this has been done before. I’m writing a book chapter on Friday Night Lights, the series, and the show is really delving into these issues in its fourth season, as Coach Taylor tries to shape a mostly black team even though the players he knows (and can trust) are white. He’ll prevail, however clumsily. Why? On the field, the objective is to win: no matter what your color or political affiliation. “The game” is an easy place to imagine an idealist politics of cultural unity.

Life, however, is not a game or a sport and so is not easy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about idealism in light of liberal disappointment with President Barack Obama. A number of my colleagues, skeptical but hopeful in 2008, are growing cynical; I was more than hopeful. I fear it too. Certainly watching the daily back and forth on the public option is enervating enough; Obama’s push in Afghanistan is near-infuriating (I don’t care if it was a campaign promise; it’s bad policy and politics, and just because I voted for him doesn’t mean I endorsed all his proposals); and his stance of state secrets is cause for concern. (Though it’s not all bad; we have credit card regulation, an equal-pay bill, a hate crimes bill, financial regulations coming down).

Progressives have been waiting to be letdown since, um, Nov. 5th. A prominent academic sent around an essay right after the election imploring us all to be “critical.” That’s right. Before he did anything! Before his inauguration, Obama’s choice of Rick Warren for the invocation furthered this cynicism (as you know, I think liberals overreacted here). Now, I hear it more and more: be critical.

It’s great to be critical. We should all be critical, or at least skeptical. But I was dismayed at how, especially from older scholars, thinkers, etc., the need to be critical seemed to outweigh the need for idealism. “Don’t be optimistic. Optimism is empty. Only criticism is smart,” the rhetoric seemed to be.

I hope that one thing my generation does not forget is the political importance of idealism. Nothing changes without idealism. Will Obama cure America’s racial disparities? No. Do we have a responsibility to believe he’s an important part of that healing? Yes. Did rugby solve South Africa’s problems? No, and, cinematically, Invictus hints at these nuances (awkward embraces, incomplete smiles; though in the end, Damon and Freeman are so fond of each other I thought they would kiss). Yet without idealism, we have no direction. We’re just angry people sitting and complaining. We cannot imagine a future without strife and so cannot develop a map to guide us there.

Tony Kushner, a socialist not known for his rose-tinted glasses, puts it elegantly in the documentary Wrestling with Angels: “It’s an ethical obligation to look for hope, it’s an ethical obligation not to despair.” And yes, he said that years before Barack Obama did.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.


  1. Miles Grier December 12, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Bonjour, M. Christian!

    I meant to congratulate you a long time ago on having your blog cited in the NYT. I’m so jealous. (Can I ask you to lay off the Cosby Show? I know, I’m only one voice, but it wasn’t nearly as sugary as, say, Full House. In fact, I’d argue the strife in the Huxtable house pointed the way more toward Roseanne and later shows than backward toward Leave it to Beaver).

    As for _Invictus_, I was a bit surprised that you did not mention that these stories of national unity and interracial harmony are almost always filtered through sports because these are stories of *men* agreeing to turn their violent energies outwards rather than against each other (or the state). After the onslaught of such fare as Remember the Titans, Coach Carter, and (to an extent) his own Million Dollar Baby, I have to wonder if Eastwood thought the stories of American men bonding through directed violence were used up and so decided to choose an analogous case in South Africa.

    Forgive me, but what a crock! It is extremely discouraging to see this version of exclusively male-bonding as the solution to all our national woes. With the attendant sexism and ban on the fulfillment of same-sex desire (Damon and Freeman can look they are going to kiss, but they can’t do it!), sports movies and war movies are, to my mind, no cause for hope. I agree with your very necessary point that hope is an ethical obligation. I just don’t see it in these sexless movies about love affairs among men. So I won’t be seeing Invictus. Ever (I pray).

    I also think it’s fascinating that the largely symbolic victories of Obama (or Mandela) cause in white people such an immediate fear of loss that is as urgent as the fear of rape. What did white South Africans’ lose? Their property was not confiscated. No reparations were paid to black South Africans paid miserable wages and then imprisoned or shot if they protested. The film’s message that black people should treat lightly at these moments is nothing other than trying to equate whites’ fear of losing with the *reality* of black deprivation. And there’s no getting around it, for the actual achievement of equality, there has to be some loss, some payback. And in every situation where we’ve tried to do reconciliation while sparing whites the experience of loss, we’ve ended up with neocolonialism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and on and on. Perhaps it’s time we level with white folks: The way to the future without strife that you mention is through justice. The perpetuation of injustice will perpetuate strife. We might not be able to reach a state of affairs that every person agrees is just. But right now we’re doing a right poor job, IMO.

    Maybe it’s time I start my own blog. Self-expression and no jealousy of your success….

  2. Aymar Jean Christian December 13, 2009 at 5:22 am

    You should blog! I am telling everyone to blog. Though this blog isn’t that successful — I guess I shouldn’t be saying that, ya know, on the blog — it’s just a volume game in the end.

    I hear you on white fears in South Africa being ridiculous, and, from my biased perspective, “Invictus” actually makes white South Africans who are anti-Mandela look needlessly angry and paranoid. But I’m biased; I’m not white. (Yet the film doesn’t really underscore what I’m sure many Americans don’t know: that South Africa is really a black country and during apartheid 10% of the country was controlling everything)

    I second your thoughts on masculinity, and I guess my rush to write this caused me to neglect it. The masculinity thing is usually why I avoid such movies, but, eh, the movie theater is a block from my house, so I saw it… Ok, well, anyway, yes, it’s all very butch (and of course, it being rugby, vaguely erotic, though much less visibly than if a gay director had directed it). Still, we see stories of national reconciliation through women as well (The Blind Side!), but those don’t make as much money at the B.O. But women’s movies in general don’t make as much money. I need to read a book on why.

    The “Cosby” in my Times quote was unfortunately out of context! In the original post I used the “Cosby” as an example scholars like Herman Gray point to as mainstream (Gray basically argues Cosby as a Reagan text, which is a bit much), and while I’m not sure I’d go as far as to posit it a kind of pre-“Roseanne,” surely “Cosby” had a lot more nuance that it’s given credit for.

    On justice: yes, we need it. I guess I’m interested in what mass media can do for society. And I actually think media is best at idealism and woeful at justice. And I would include Obama’s whole PR campaign as a media image like Invictus or Star Trek, which are about utopias. I suppose I’m gesturing toward Debord here, but saying that spectacle isn’t always bad.

    I love using the example of “The Wire.” Because I think scholars are always saying that so many mainstream narratives are individualistic, shallow and lack institutional critique. “The Wire” is by far the most thorough meditation of urban injustice ever created for TV/film and very anti-spectacle, but let’s be real: it took 50+hours to thoroughly deconstruct our urban woes (forget the national woes) and what does it leave us with? Certainly not a program for justice; it properly diagnoses problems, but televisual narratives don’t do well with solutions (it gives us a few, to be sure, like “Hamsterdam”). That’s really hard for a film to do (TV has more time, but even then…). So I liked “Invictus” for being honest about what it is: a way to envision a destination, an ideal, and inspire us to achieve it.

    I love when Miles comments! I get substance, so rare for the Internets.

    I’m still stuck in my dungeon of work but should re-emerge in New York around the holidays. See you then!

  3. fa December 14, 2009 at 3:36 am


  4. Miles Grier December 18, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Hey, Aymar.

    Thanks for the thorough reply. We’ll have to talk The Wire some other time in person.

    I knew you were doing the Herman Gray on the Cosby Show. I think, though, if you look at the level and intensity of family conflict on the Cosby Show, it looks more like Roseanne (albeit at a much higher SES). Besides, Roseanne was the next sitcome from the same production company, which produced several family sitcoms afterward. I think the institutional track leads us to a Cosby influence. I don’t think there’s a family sitcom of the 80s and early 90s that isn’t Cosby-influenced. Cosby saved the genre.

    I have to admit I haven’t read my Debord… Society of the Spectacle, right? Well, you know when my dissertation ends in 1855, blue INK is like whoa! So I’m going to hope that Debord is out of my time period and keep it moving.

    I’ll be back in NYC after Jan 3. Hope to see you.

    Happy Everything!