Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

Simple and sincere. A bit simpleminded?

Is that fair? Or if it is, is simpleminded always necessarily a flaw? Couldn’t it be a stage in the evolution of our understanding a certain issue? (That would be true both for the student listening to the lecture, and for the teacher as she refines and deepens that lecture, over the course of years.) Or, in a commercial film that needs to make a profit at the same time that it wants to make a difference, might we forgive over-clarity, at least see it as a reasonable and even inevitable delimitation?

Invictus is a Social Studies film, and a Sunday School lesson to boot. It’s effective in both registers, and typical of both registers. It teaches us about world events, and suggests how we should act in the face thereof. It’s reductive, which is to say that it selects considerably from vast social and ideological reality. But in reducing and selecting it still suggests complexity, and richness. I would say that on this subject Invictus even outdistances another beloved Social Studies/Sunday School film, the overfamiliar and at least somewhat outmoded To Kill a Mockingbird, by quite a bit. (This is just on the question of race. As for it’s understanding of difference, or the inner life of a child, or it’s lessons about compassion, TKaM continues unparalleled.)

How? Clint Eastwood’s film idealizes black people, or this black person, to the point of hagiography. But it is an actual black person, and they are actual black people. Ethnographically speaking, the ensemble that put this film together consulted actual sources, and not just their vague liberal feelings. Plus, there are details and subtleties that flesh out the potential platitudes, serving to set them more plausibly.

Some of the film’s scenes have a relaxed, leisurely, John-Fordian feel to them. Maybe it’s an old man’s pace, or the fact that this old man—and veteran of a lot of Westerns!—directed it. Age or not, this method is also a way to insure that setting and character drive the central plot development. For this reason the resonantly microcosmic security situation works especially well. The black men and the white men come to know and more or less respect each other. (As professionals? Howard Hawks?) Good stuff.

Still, I hesitate. Maybe it’s that there’s a lot of awkward material with the extras, and the rugby. Or the three groups of fans they keep cutting back to during that climactic game. Or how the motion of the projected film goes all pixilated at the very end. When Steven Spielberg goes inspiringly educational (Amistad) there’s a showbiz component that pushes it over. Invictus is more modest, maybe more mature. But somehow it feels like it’s lacking something.

We were talking simple, and simpleminded. Maybe what Invictus lacks is my going over and meeting, talking to people who have known and been these things. The best activist film, after all, can only take the actual citizen so far. After that it’s my problem, and my duty. Our collective understanding of issues evolves. But as individuals we should probably work harder to do our part and move the process along.

I want to express some admiration. Nice renderings of stadia, and pitches. Artfully effective musical shadings. The training session in the townships is outstanding. Admirable lead performances. Worth seeing! But we probably oughta read Long Walk to Freedom too. And then go from there.