U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Winter Break Movies

This is always a good season for movies, what with a bit of a break to view them as well as the run-up to the Oscars. I wonder what readers think of this year’s crop?

I saw Clint Eastwood’s Invictus last night. It is about Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) reaching out to white South Africans through a rugby season. Freeman does an excellent job capturing Mandela’s body language and personality. But all in all, it is really just an underdog sports movie parading around with the weight of history. I’m not arguing that sports are unimportant in history–they have been very influential in creating and destroying community, among other things. Michigan State has a historian of South Africa, Peter Alegi, that writes about the influence of soccer during and after apartheid. Invictus, though, in the end ignores a lot of racial nuance for the sake of the emotional high at the end of a rugby world cup. It starts off recognizing the problems between the races, but in the end has everyone dancing in the streets, uniting small black boy and white cops, mean white employer and black maid, black and white security details in a frenzy of happiness.

I guess those final images frustrate me because I do in fact study successful moments of race relations. They are so hard fought and layered with difficulty and only sometimes last beyond those moments. Movies like Invictus tend to say that all we need to overcome a long past of racial hatred is a successful sports season. Messages like that embed themselves into our psyche and make it much more difficult to participate in realistic discussions about race.

In contrast, I thought the BBC’s and PBS’s mini-series “Endgame” took on some of the same material (the end of apartheid) with more nuance and political savvy. Even though good white liberals had to be one of the main characters (as they seem to always have to be in white novels and movies about blacks), at least the miniseries showed realistically some of the fear and prejudice such whites have.

One of the best parts of these movies is the nuanced black characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor is amazing in Endgame as a leader in the ANC trying to figure out whether he should cooperate in diplomacy with the white power brokers, or continue to fight against the government from the outside.

As part of some break novel reading, my librarian aunt brought me The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It’s on the NY Times best seller list. The story of the 1960s South is told through the perspective of two black maids and one privileged white woman. I hung with it for awhile, but got frustrated when the author, for as much nuance as she gave her black characters, insisted on the tremendous love they had for every white child they raised. And at the same time, the one major white character is questioning the racial and gender structures of her society. I wonder if it would be possible to ever write a novel about the south that is popular that does not include a liberal white character (the little girl in the The Secret Life of Bees also comes to mind).

As an interesting side-note, when I went hunting for reviews of Invictus they were generally good. Even the New York Times did not question the movie’s historicity. But a Marxist reviewer sought out the aftermath of that rugby season, and wrote about all the racial violence that the players engaged in in subsequent years. Brought back memories of the Marxists I study in the 30s.

What messages about race do you sense in today’s movies and films?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have been looking forward to *Invictus* because I was so impressed by *Gran Torino*. I’m sorry to hear that it’s no more committed to exploring moral ambiguity than are most underdog sports movies.

    For a silly action movie, *Sherlock Holmes* does a fine job of portraying, to my mind, the degree to which the occult is part of modernity–which is to say, the belief in magic continues to exist in industrial society as an exploitable anxiety.

  2. Lauren: My problem with the movie is that it is a lousy movie. The pacing and dialogue stink. I’m sure it’s a great story, but it needed better storytelling and movie-making. Morgan Freeman is passable, and Matt Damon is talented, but the movie is barely—I mean this—worth renting. I think it would could possibly be worse on a smaller screen. – TL

  3. Even terrible movies can have major cultural consequences. I guess it depends in part on how popular said movie is. We can also place the movie within the stream of contemporary discourse on race. Any thoughts?

  4. Lauren: The movie was fine on race, if a bit superficial. My preliminary sense is that no one will be citing Invictus as being of consequence on race/civil rights. As you noted, it’s a fine sports movie—although not as good as Hoosiers or even Rudy, as far as more serious or sentimental sports movies go. Criticisms aside, I appreciate ~any~ effort made toward disseminating a wider understanding of anything—I mean that—important to do with Africa in general. And of course South Africa has some particular importance. – TL

  5. Lauren & Colleagues: I apologize if my last comment was a bit overly dismissive. I was looking to extricate myself from the discussion once I realized that my feelings about the movie were more negative than I realized when I made my first post. Both of my comments above are less about the discussion thread and more about my disappointment with the movie. Indeed, I still can’t decide if my expectations were too high or if my complaints are legit. I think the film-making failings (pacing and dialogue, primarily, but also the long melodramatic ending) subtract so much from the viewer’s experience that the film’s positive messages about race and cultural democracy are lost by the end. – TL

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