Sporting Narratives is InsiderSport’s opportunity to explore a time in which a gripping tale from the sporting world was portrayed through the unmistakable medium of cinema.
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 biographical sports drama Invictus tells the story of how sports unified the country of South Africa during the presidential campaign of Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, culminating in the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph.
The start of the movie, set on the day of Mandela’s release from jail, opens on a pristine sports ground where a white Rugby team is training in full kit and equipment before panning over a fence and onto a dirt field where young black children are playing with a broken ball and dirty-ragged clothing, immediately depicting to the viewer the segregational split in South Africa during Aprtheid.
Immediately following this scene the movie skips forward four years with Eastwood using a variety of news reports as a way to offer the audience context and quickly explain the important events which took place in South Africa during that time – which included a change in law which allowed black people to vote. It is here where we are shown the influence of Nelson Mandela as he essentially stops a civil war and becomes the first ever black president of South Africa, with the story of the movie essentially kicking off on his first day in office.
The 133 minute epic then takes you through Mandela’s first year in office and gives the audience a front row seat as we see him face the challenges of a post-aprtheid era. The turning point in the film comes when the South African Rugby Union team, the Springboks, take on England and Mandela notices black South Africans cheering for England. After this, Mandela arranges a meeting with Rugby captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, and with South Africa set to host the 1995 World Cup, Mandela implies a victory will bring the country together – and it does.
The movie received mixed ratings by movie reviewers, averaging a score of 6.6 on Rotten Tomatoes, whilst also earning Oscar award nominations for both Freeman and Damon in the categories of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
Although the world is familiar with Nelson Mandela, what Eastwood does well is focus on the psyche of South Africa as a nation as it is led through one of the world’s biggest political and humanitarian changes since the black civil rights movement headed by Dr Martin Luther King in the USA.
One of the most emotive moments of the true story features a visit by the Springboks to Robben Island, the location where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 year jail sentence in a ‘tiny cell.’
Mandela, who was alive at the time of the movie’s release, never publicly gave his opinion on the film, however, Freeman did confirm that they in fact watched the movie together.
Discussing his role, Freeman stated: “If we can say any part of acting is hard, then playing someone who is living and everybody knows would be the hardest… I felt destined to do something about Mandela. In 1992, when he published his autobiography, he was asked who he would want to play him, if the book ever became a movie. And he named me. So, I was sort of the chosen one, as it were. Therefore, I expected that eventually I would play him.”
Finally the name of the movie, which derives from the Latin translation of unconquered, is also the title of a poem by William Ernest Henley and is a theme throughout the picture as it appears multiple times with Mandela explaining it inspired him during his time in prison.