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.