December 08, 2009

The Billboard for the Film Invictus


The movie about the early days of Nelson Mandela’s unprecedented presidency in post-apartheid South Africa will be released on Friday, December 11th. It’s the first major film about Mandela and post-apartheid South Africa filmed on location in South Africa. The film is based on the novel “Playing the Enemy” by South African writer John Carlin. The story is about the South African rugby team’s quest for the world cup and its affect on race relations in the post-Apartheid society.

I have an ongoing interest in the play of images that precede the release of a movie and how those images create expectation and anticipation for the narrative told in the film. Anyway, I was in East Oakland recently and saw one of the many billboards for this film. There is something deeply disturbing and unnerving about Mandela’s image as portrayed by Morgan Freeman in these billboards and movie posters. The image of Mandela is looming yet his back is turned and he is in shadow. He is ultimately reduced to a backdrop for the white athlete portrayed by Matt Damon standing in light and central to the composition of the billboard image. The encoding in this imagery places the white rugby player in a more central significant position than the legendary historical figure of Mandela. The words on the billboard read, “His people needed a leader. He gave them a champion.” Implied in these words is the tacit assumption that Nelson Mandela was not sufficient enough a leader for “his people” at the time of his release from prison. One would think that this is a preposterous notion in light of Mandela’s historic achievements, but the viewer of this billboard is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine that he “needed” the help of the white athlete depicted in the image.

The trailer for the film is equally as absurd. Interspersed with clips from the film flash the words “To Unite his country…he asked one man…to do the impossible.” Are we to believe that a Rugby game was that significant an episode in the struggle for Black self-determination in South Africa? Perhaps there is more nuance in the film, but the images in the trailer and the billboards re-run the tired white protagonist as savior narrative to the point of ridiculousness.

Sunday I went to Coffee with a Beat, one of my favorite cafés in Oakland and there on one of the tables was the latest Parade Magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Paper. The front cover shows Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon. An interesting note is that Eastwood went to high school in Oakland in the late 1940s. The article further revealed that, “Eastwood doesn’t let any of the characters in the movie lecture about racism.” WHAT?!!! For me this confirms that Eastwood may again create the type of sanitized stories that vainly place minor white protagonists at the center of Black historical narratives.  The poster for Invictus seems to illustrate how distorted the view of a historical event can become when disempowered people don’t have control of the images that tell the story. A clue to how Black South Africans viewed the Rugby World Cup can be found in the comments of South African Policy Analyst Aubrey Matshiqi. He Said that “…the euphoria of the world cup overshadowed the inequities in South Africa.” With historical figures such as Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Robert Sobukwe I ask do we (meaning everybody) really need a white athletic protagonist to highlight or understand one of the most significant liberation struggles of the 20th century? Why was John Carlin’s book chosen as the first major internationally released film on the anti-Apartheid struggle to be made in South Africa?

Comments (13)

  • I blog quite often and I really appreciate your information. This great article has really peaked my interest.
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  • Can’t wait to see this film! Invictus also has a very cool facebook fan page- Definately worth checking out if you’re a fan of the movie!

  • Duane, there has never been a people on earth who don’t expect their images to be “central to all historical narratives”. This dynamic is part and parcel of group idenity, historicism, and mythology. I don’t “dismiss” this phenomena, but I don’t agree with you that it’s “willful”. All groups, as all individuals (unless acting masochistically), want to see and present themselves in the best possible light, and identify others as Outsider, Other, Alien. It’s basic to human nature, that ultimate dictator of our behavior so dismissed in the literary academia of the past 35 years, but a topic in which great work has been done in evolutionary biology in recent times. If you expect white financeers, businessmen, artists, and audiences to somehow cast off human nature and embrace some kind of objective presentation of human reality in their pop mythology, perhaps you are buying in subconsciously to that ‘ol Tubab lie that white folks are superhuman, superior to everyone else, God’s favorites, etc. At any rate, you are barking up the wrong tree. Surely, as one who is openly and proudly Afrocentrist, you can understand the psychological imperative to affirm one’s own idenity and that of one’s group?

    You might object that white Americans have blood on their hands, and that African-Americans, as their victims are in a state of moral purity – Wake up! Human history is awash with tales of oppression and woe. One tribe attacks another, one nation conquers a portion of the world, and the planet spins on… Yes, the US drops the Bomb on tens of thousands of innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it’s a truly horrible thing, but what percentage of the Japanese population is kept awake at night by the ghosts of the tens of MILLIONS of Chinese the Japanese army slaughtered in WW II? The Chinese very much want the Tibetans (among others) to think of themselves as grateful to be “Chinese”, and are deeply offended to be considered oppressors. Just one more historical example from deep in the past: Centuries before black Africans were captured by other Africans and then sold as slaves by and to whites in the Americas, there had been centuries of Celts and Slavs captured by Vikings and sold as slaves to Arabs in North Africa. The English word “slave”, in fact, is derived from “Slav”. Maybe you’ve noticed some fair-haired, light-skinned, blue-eyed Arabs? Who cries for their ancestors, many sold into sexual slavery, now?

    But the human impulse towards group self-aggrandizement, and violence and domination towards, and of others, is sometimes countered by a contrasting tendancy of the desire to comprehend, empathize, and sympathize with the other, the outsider, the alien. I see many of the Hollywood movies you complain of as evidence of just this tendancy. They may be silly, poorly made, and naive, but they are made with the best of intentions. No Hollywood financier ever said “Yippee! I’m gonna get rich with ‘Cry Freedom’!” They know very well there won’t be an audience to pay for their multi-million dollar productions unless they’re larded with audience identification figures, and for the time being the majority of the audience in the English-speaking world is white. This doesn’t make for a good movie, or an especially truthful one, but it’s not coming from a desire to colonize BLACK people’s minds, but rather the minds of WHITE folk. The makers of these movies say (for example): “listen up white people – there are Black Africans being oppressed and murdered for the sake of diamonds, and cash, and greed! You don’t want to hear about this, do you? But would you give the matter two hours of your attention if we throw in Leonardo DiCaprio?” Yes, the attitude is condescending and paternalistic towards EVERYONE, including whites, but that goes with the territory of big bucks. Tell me when the cows come home, and I’ll know things have changed…

    Duane, I don’t remember specifying my own response to “Bird”, which I thought was a mixed bag, but sincere, and there’s a place in my heart for liberal messages produced by those, like Eastwood, who are essentially conservative. I haven’t seen “Crash” or “Monster’s Ball”, nor am I interested in doing so, but I have seen “Intolerance”, “Broken Blossoms”, “The Great Dictator”, “The Sun Shines Bright”, “The Searchers”, “Donovan’s Reef”, “Sergeant Rutledge”, “Touch of Evil”, “Border Incident”, “Devil’s Doorway”, “Apache”, “The Crimson Kimono”, “Shock Corridor”, “A Patch of Blue”, “Stars in My Crown”, “The Lawless”, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here”, “The Phenix City Story”, “White Dog”, and others, which are examples of “Hollywood” films having a much more nuanced take on race and America than you seem willing to grant to products of culture “emanating from (that) specific geographic location”.

    My favorite film dealing with black and white America is Douglas Sirk’s remake of “Imitation of Life”. Sirk was a leftist Danish-German refugee from Nazi Germany who fled to the US with his Jewish wife. He found America idealistic and energetic, but wilfully innocent and self-decieving. In “Imitation”, his final Hollywood film, he contrasts the relative artificality of the white Lana Turner and Sandra Dee with the powerful emotions of Susan Kohner, a “black” girl who can pass as “white”. At the climax of this film, at the funeral of Kohner’s mother, a black woman who never questioned the power structure, Mahalia Jackson, in all her inimitable glory, sings “Trouble of the World”, leaving no eye in the house dry. From when I first saw this film many years ago, there was never a question in my mind that Sirk’s interest was with Kohner, and the river of authentic emotion delivered by Mahalia. This film has occaisioned much controversy re. racial issues, and the manner of its production (for example, having a Jewish girl play a “black” girl passing for “white”), but it got a lot of people thinking and feeling more progressively re. race, and most of these people were white.

    Lastly – again, the Wikipedia article on Morgan Freeman says that HE wanted to play Mandela (which, of course, he should), that HE bought the rights to John Carlin’s book, which HE then turned over to his buddy of long standing – Eastwood. So you really should take it up with him. Perhaps you’d like to start a boycott of black stars who have dealings with the white power structure?

  • Duane Deterville says:

    Lina, yours is a curious response because it seems to me that you are underlining my point but not placing any accountability on the audiences or the Hollywood businessmen who literally bank on those audiences having the racist expectation that their images will be central to all historical narratives. Dismissing a willful process that still dominates the majority of Hollywood movies well into the 21st century as the result of business considerations is an oversimplification. As for Hollywood, are we going to pretend that there is no specific definition for a culture of film emanating from a specific geographic location for approximately a century? A culture of film that began with movies like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”?

    Lina, your response to Eastwood’s “Bird” is entirely different from mine and I suspect that the list of different responses would include “Crash” and “Monster’s Ball”. I hate to disappoint you but “Bird” would not gain any points for Eastwood in my or many Black folks estimation. It centered far too much on the pathology of addiction than on Charlie Parker as an erudite artist with a relentless work ethic. I produced a Jazz symposium and moderated the panel discussion that centered on the life of Charlie Parker called “Bird, Bop, Black Art and Beyond”. The panelists that consisted of music professors, musicians, writers and broadcasters (one of which knew Bird personally) almost universally felt that the film was a travesty. There was no good reason for Eastwood to center the story of Charlie parker’s life on an account by one white woman (Chan Parker) and ignore the other three Black women that Parker married. This resulted in absurd things such as a very prominent Red Rodney character but no Miles Davis character to be found anywhere. Whitiker’s performance was brilliant but that couldn’t change the absurdity of “Bird’s” narrative.

    The fact that Morgan Freeman presented the script for “Invictus” to Eastwood was stated in the Parade article that I mentioned in my blog entry, so no surprises there. But let’s be realistic, the Producer and Director of the film is CLINT EASTWOOD. Lets stop trying to alleviate accountability from Hollywood and its longtime participants who create narratives that are a racist lie of omission.

  • Frank Lostaunau says: check out how walt disney has messed with all of our heads…

  • Frank Lostaunau says: it could be that the restriction re: not talking about racism came from morgan freeman…perhaps?

    incidentally, as a mixed blood native american/mexican + a few other drops of other stuff mixed in …I already know about painful… i’m also a senior queer with medical disabilities…i know about pain…67 years…

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    kemi kemi kemi…you sure know how to crush a senior citizen…a “door knob” indeed! Pee Wee Herman: “I know you are but what am I?”

    duane you know that Dances With Wolves was all about kevin’s curved crack…not GENOCIDE…and without a full-on-monty by kevin it flopped!!! i understand hurt feelings…how do you suppose spike felt when clint ordered him to “shut your face”…hmmmmm?…you know that America is a plantation, reservation, concentration camp…i was under the impression that CCA turned out more thick skinned curators…i guess i was wrong…i stand by my initial comment about kevin…he has very nice soft pinky titties…think about it!!!

  • A little follow up, Duane – according to Wikipedia, the Invictus project originated with Morgan Freeman, and he was the one who brought in Eastwood! So perhaps you should take this up with him. He’s The Man in this picture, literally and figuratively…

  • I get what you’re saying, Duane, certainly in terms of the psychological effects. But I would suggest a much simpler motivation for all these white characters in these African-themed films. Hollywood films are financed mostly by white people for largely white audiences (at least domestically). The people who put up the cash believe that white people won’t go to movies without white characters. It’s as basic as that. Sad, stupid, but not outright malign.

    And who and what is this “Hollywood” you speak of? It’s not a government agency like the FBI. It’s a bunch of businessmen and artists who often exist in uneasy relation to eachother, and produce a lot of garbage, but have also created many many glories that make some of us happy to be alive. I can’t deny the pain of people dealing with sterotypes and colonial messaging, but the story of Hollywood is much more compicated than just that. There are many deeply nuanced films which have been made there, and in terms of politics alone the town has put out a lot of work by people willing to take it on the chin for ideas of progressive import. The titles mentioned above aren’t especially good, but they are examples of this. As to Eastwood – I can’t say I’m a fan of his recent work, but I think his “Bird” was an honest attempt that might buy the least bit of clout in your book…

  • Duane Deterville says:

    LOL! I knew that I could count on you for a comment Frank. I’m sure that your response was made tongue in cheek. But, you should be aware that in an instance where an image may not phase you in the least bit, there are those of us who feel that Hollywood’s history of ugly distortion with regards to the history and image of Black/African people is painful.

    Kemi, I do remember the film “Cry Freedom” and also the made for TV movie “Mandela and De Klerk” starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine which has a similar affect with the added “counterpart.” The control of narrative and images is a way of controlling power dynamics. Hollywood creates the myth that all liberation struggles were won with the involvement of white leadership or guidance as a prerequisite. It is a way of neutralizing the notion of self-determined liberation in the minds of neo-colonial audiences. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond”. Also take a look at the movie posters for each of the films that we just mentioned. One Kenyan friend of mine calls it the 21st century version of the Tarzan story.

  • Duane,


    But I remember the Steven Biko film, Cry Freedom, had a powerful performance by Denzel but there was still the same dynamic of having to dilute the presence of a Black leader with a white male “counterpart”. And there has not been much if anything about post-Apartheid SA.

    Also, is this clown who made the comment above mine serious?! Frank Lostaunau represents what’s wrong with the world. What a door knob!

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    i hear you duane but so what…i would much rather relax and eat buttered popcorn and enjoy the shower scenes and maybe a damon full monty scene than the truth about anything…think of it like reality TV…nasty and full of nada…just see the movie and then go hang out…clint doesn’t care what you think because he’s a money man…matt damon is the perfect way to make bank…besides the national enquirer has come up with a story about morgan freeman pulling a moody allen…maybe clint thinks that morgy needs to keep a low profile…just like tiger…i think clint made a big mistake is not casting kevin costner as mandela puffing and walking around shirtless, showing his fat titties with fur…yup, kevin is adored by older queers…anyway it’s the holidays so relax and forget about the truth and all the surrounding distortions…you’re a curator after all…

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