Rugby and Reconciliation

Rugby and Reconciliation for urban faithInvictus may not be as popular as this year’s bigger holiday releases, but its poignant themes of justice and peace are both entertaining and redemptive.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus has generated lots of buzz as a potential Oscar contender, and rightly so. But it’s unfortunate that bigger films like Avatar and Sherlock Holmes are drawing more attention from audiences, because Invictus presents a story that’s both entertaining and transformative.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island’s maximum-security prison after 27 years as a political prisoner whose only crime was resisting South Africa’s unjust apartheid laws. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. In 1995, he began to reconcile his country through peace, justice, selflessness, and rugby.

Director Eastwood utilizes the superb talents of Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar) to adapt John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation to the silver screen.

Make no mistake — Invictus is an inspirational sports film. Those hoping for an epic history of Nelson Mandela’s trials and triumphs in office or a deep commentary on South Africa in 1995 will be disappointed. The film paints a decent background of South Africa in the mid-1990s and Eastwood and Freeman intentionally refrain from painting an idyllic picture of Mandela, but these are supportive elements for a story about reconciliation and the power of humility.

Noticing the brokenness of his country, Mandela views the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, as an opportunity to promote a unified national pride. Mandela understands that the Afrikaners (White South Africans) are afraid of his administration and fear exile from a country that has become their home. Instead of exploiting his new position as an office of domination and vengeance, Mandela acts humbly and selflessly. Mandela calls the nation to seek peace not by changing their colors or the name of the Springboks. Rather, he asks his fellow Black citizens, who spent years viewing the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, to embrace the team as their own.

The title “Invictus” (Latin for inconquerable) comes from the poem by William Ernest Henley. Mandela drew strength from Henley’s triumphant text while in prison, and he sends a handwritten copy of the poem to Pienaar to inspire him to lead South Africa’s team to the world championship. The eventual national embrace of the team transforms a symbol of division, racism, and hatred into a symbol of a “Rainbow Nation” growing towards reconciliation.

The film rightly shows the historical racism and domination of many White South Africans, but it does not do so with a broad brush and addresses the danger of Black South Africans harboring anger and desiring retaliation. This is good. Eastwood, however, errs on the side of making the White South Africans too innocent and weakens the magnitude of the reconciliation that follows. It is too easy to forget that Nelson Mandela was blessed compared to other civil rights advocates who died at the hands of a White South African government. South Africa was — and is — reconciling and recovering from a very brutal system of hatred, abuse, and murder; it is important not to forget the harshness of reality.

In a poignant scene, Pienaar and his teammates travel to Robben Island and view the cells in which many Black South Africans, including Mandela, were held. The weight of the prison intoxicates Pienaar. He sees the work yards, touches the steel bars, and encloses himself in Mandela’s former cell. Pienaar feels the sense of entrapment and dehumanization that permeates a prison. Overcome with the severity of apartheid, a system he lived within but simply accepted as status quo, and realizing the gravitas of Mandela, he remarks in genuine awe: “I was thinking how a man could spend 30 years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him?”

Mandela and Pienaar must take up courage to engage the task before them. Mandela, in a position of political power and influence, takes it upon himself to refute the temptation of revenge and put down fear. He reaches out to a person who was once his enemy and asks him to participate in something larger than either of them. Pienaar, filled with uncertainty, takes the risk to trust Mandela and reexamines the system he had believed to be true and just. He becomes a symbol and representative not only for Afrikaans, but also for the 43,000,000 South Africans of all races, all of whom are trying to discover their role in the new nation.

Rugby and Reconciliation for urban faithRugby and Reconciliation for urban faithBased on a True Story: Freeman and Damon in Invictus (left), and the real-life Mandela and Pienaar.

Mandela and Pienaar are archetypes of reconciliation, not because they are perfect, but because they are real people. Mandela has failed marriages and a disappointing family life that mark his past. Pienaar benefited from the inhuman structure of apartheid. Yet, despite their missteps, regrets, and blotted histories, their humility in 1995 was driven by their Christian faith and understanding of biblical reconciliation.

For a film that was destined to garner Oscar talk, Invictus is surpringly grounded. Clint Eastwood does not burden his movie with sappy, self-important filmmaking. The film is straightforward, somewhat predictable, and the cinematography is rather ordinary. But, on the other hand, Eastwood does not waste any film in the telling of this extraordinary story. The film’s simplicity is engaging.

Freeman’s depiction of Mandela is noteworthy. Although Freeman is much taller than Mandela and does not quite master a clean Black South African accent, the profundity of his performance emulates the spirit of Mandela. Likewise, Matt Damon becomes immersed in his powerful and earnest portrayal of Pienaar; it is easy to forget that Damon is only playing a role.

As with any movie “based on a true story,” some of aspects of Invictus are fictionalized for the sake of the silver screen. Mandela’s involvement with the Springbok was not as calculated as the film displays and it was after the match that Mandela and Francois Pienaar became friends. However, this poetic license does not detract from the purpose of the story.

Invictus may not win any Oscars — although Damon, Eastwood, and Freeman have been nominated for Golden Globes — but it is a substantial film nonetheless. There is enough action to keep the film moving and enough drama to maintain a salient theme. The film is suitable for teenagers and adults and asks its audience — especially its Christian viewers — to find their role in reconciling a world of broken nations, broken people, and broken hearts.

Aliens vs. Racism

Aliens vs. Racism for urban faithIf you’re still having doubts about whether you should see last weekend’s top movie, the science-fiction thriller District 9, I’m here to tell you that it’s a must-see film — that is, if you have the stomach for a little gore and a lot of soul searching.

In a summer filled with transforming robots, heroic Joes, and kid wizards, District 9 stands out as something far more remarkable than your typical alien movie. Unlike Independence Day and Invasion, this movie is not about aliens exterminating humans and taking over the world. Instead, the aliens are a minority group and humans are the villains.

The movie takes place a few decades after aliens have come to Earth. Your first clue that this one’s going to be different is that their massive spaceship descends upon Johannesburg, South Africa — not one of the usual American cities that seem to have a monopoly on extraterrestrial visitors. This gives the film a layer of realism that’s missing from most recent sci-fi releases.

The alien ship eerily hovers over Johannesburg, undisturbed for three months, until a team of human scientists open it up. What they find is a multitude of aliens who are disoriented, malnourished, and stranded. In response, the humans feed the creatures, who are referred to as “prawns” (a derogatory term comparing them to bottom-feeders), and settle them as refugees in a camp called District 9. Over the years, tensions rise between the prawns and humans, and District 9 is transformed into a slum with over 2 million alien inhabitants.

Eventually, humans can no longer tolerate the prawns, and Multi-National United (MNU), a company interested in mastering the aliens’ technology with no regard for the aliens’ welfare, is contracted to evict the aliens to another location miles away from humankind. MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe, who is sympathetic and na├»ve about many things, including his own prejudice and racism, is chosen to lead this daunting task of serving the prawns with their eviction notices.

Confused and frightened, the prawns become hostile and some are killed. In the process, Merwe contracts a strange virus that mutates his DNA with those of the prawns, and he experiences grotesque physical changes. Soon he is hunted by MNU and abandoned by his friends and family. His only hope lies within the barbed fences of District 9.

Partly shot as a documentary and a CNN-type report, the film handles its themes with maturity, especially in the realistic portrayal of how the aliens are discriminated against. Many of the human characters in the film are ruthless and corrupt with no respect for life, whether it is human or alien. What makes this so disturbing is that this is not an unfair portrayal of humankind. People do this every day to other people.

Another strong element of the movie is the depth of the alien characters. The prawns are not one-dimensional, man-killing creatures. Instead, they have personalities, desires, and emotions, which make them just as “human” as humans, if not more so. They may not be as cuddly as E.T. or ALF, but they aren’t obnoxious ploys for comic relief like Jar Jar Binks.

By having a cast of relatively unknown actors, the film places the aliens and the humans on a more even playing field. Audiences don’t have a studly Will Smith or a stunning Megan Fox to root for, which means it’s anyone’s game. Actor Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus, does a superb job of juggling the emotions and turmoil of his character.

Like any good story, District 9 has plenty of contrasts to engage audiences. Wikus starts out as an enemy of the prawns, but then he starts to become one of them against his free will. As a result, humans become his enemies. This role reversal challenges the protagonist and the audience to see things from another perspective. Overall, the plot is solid and original and breaks new ground in the sci-fi genre.

Neill Blomkamp, the film’s South African writer/director, and producer Peter Jackson, the New Zealand native who directed the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, transplant the U.F.O. genre both geographically and intellectually, turning their film into a narrative that’s at once more plausible and relevant to real-life concerns.

Nothing is said specifically about the film’s setting or South Africa’s obvious history with apartheid, but Blomkamp no doubt places his story there to subtly represent the reality of prejudice and injustice that plagues all humanity. The locale also provides plenty of open space for the humans to create District 9 and the other more isolated internment camp.

And don’t think that just because this movie tackles weighty social issues means that it’s also boring or slow. It’s not. There is plenty of action — chase scenes, “ticking bombs,” and explosions. The film earns its R rating for bloody violence and intense language. Characters get annihilated and guts splatter through the air onto the camera lens (no joke). But none of it seems overly excessive. The action, along with the special effects (which are employed sparingly), are effective without overshadowing the characters or story. District 9 is a blockbuster with a brain. If you go, prepare to be challenged as well as entertained.

Sex Ed. on the 4 Train

Sex Ed. on the 4 TrainThe other night as I rode the subway home from a meeting, I took my seat in the middle of a condom rally. Yes, that’s right, a condom rally. When I sat down, I was across from two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who were sitting across from two of their friends who were standing in front of the subway-car doors. This set of parallel teenagers each had condoms in their hands and were exchanging them with each other by airborne express. The pair I was sitting across from were remarking on how cool they thought it was that their friends’ school handed out condoms in bulk.
(more…)

Let’s Talk About Race

Most of my life I have been thinking about race and religion–as a child when my family left my native Costa Rica to move to inner-city New Jersey, as a teenager struggling to develop my faith and learning to navigate race relations, then as a young adult serving internationally with a missions organization. The issues were always boldly present. Now, as I live my “ever after” as the wife of a South African man, we are trying to raise a family that is intimately committed to God and, as an overflow, passionately committed to social justice. Last year we followed the election closely, and dinnertime was lively with talk of politics, race, and religion.
(more…)