Theology in the Dark

On Tuesday, January 26, saint benedict’s table hosted the first Theology in the Dark event. The idea is that while there is a lot of media which offers no value to Christians, there is plenty that can be learned from movies. Focusing on the themes of forgiveness and redemption, we saw Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. John has written up a short summary that I’ll share, instead of typing all the same things myself 🙂

While racial segregation in South Africa had its roots firmly planted in colonial times it wasn’t until the general election of 1948 that the outgrowth was fully felt as Apartheid (where the rights of the majority blacks were dismissed and minority rule by whites was entrenched). As official government policy, apartheid was a legal system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. In May of 1994, after years of anti-apartheid activism and imprisonment, Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa in that country’s first multi-racial general election. With a deep and violent racial divide and a new black president, the question on everybody’s mind the day Mandela came to office had to have been, “how does he even begin to envision balancing black aspirations with white fears?” On June 24, 1995, a rugby game was played that changed the hearts and minds of millions, and for a moment those aspirations and fears were forged into something beyond expectation … a collective sense of greatness.

Based on the book by John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation the film Invictus is the newest project from director Clint Eastwood, and was the first to be viewed in a new occasional series we are calling “theology in the dark”. The film is about how Mandela (portrayed well by Morgan Freeman), in the early days of his presidency, set out to re-define South Africa and galvanize a country ripped apart by racial divides, by using the World Cup of Rugby which South Africa was set to host. The dilemma was that the dominantly white Afrikaner Springbok national rugby team was beloved by the white Afrikaners and despised by the blacks. And frankly, at that point they were just not a very good team. Mandela set out to enlist the help of team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) by inspiring him towards building a better team and to go just beyond the expectations of those around them and consider what was then unlikely – win the world cup of rugby.

If you are a fan of Eastwood’s work as director (in films such as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino) then you will feel at home with how he paces this film. If you don’t care much for his directorial touch then you may find this film predictable, slowly paced and short on character development.

Character development is essential to any good story. We have to care about the characters, we need to cheer and/or rally against them to buy the premise of the film. This film is no different. But Eastwood doesn’t go deep into developing either of the two main characters – Mandela or Pienaar. We are given enough to get by but not enough to be satisfied. And that might be because this film isn’t so much character driven as it is driven by what happened as a result of the win on that field in 1995.

This is a film of cultural impressions, moments of emotion, and an epiphany. Eastwood sets that up right from the opening sequence contrasting an all white boy’s school practising rugby on a well fenced lush green field while right across the street behind a broken chain link fence a bunch of young black boys kick about a soccer ball on a dusty forsaken looking field. A few times we are reminded of that scene – that cultural impression – when we’re told that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen while soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans. The cultural impressions leave you feeling something that carries you along as you enter the townships, as you hear how Afrikaners talk about the new president, and as you visit the prison cell on Robben Island. You get a sense of inspiration as you hear Mandela speak with Pienaar, and as Pienaar becomes moved by Mandela’s wisdom and by the call to go beyond what is expected.

Epiphany – in the sense of awe, wonder, elation, illumination, and realization – an overstatement maybe, but nonetheless this is what many South Africans felt on that day in 1995 when their team (ranked 9th, with no chance of even reaching the finals) won the world cup of rugby. At that point, the black aspirations and white fears of a torn country were replaced by a moment of shared reconciliation. That is a significant marker in their history, and is the main “character” developed by Eastwood in this film.

“One country One team,” was the slogan leading up to the world cup. During his acceptance speech, Pienaar made it clear that the team had won the cup not just for the 60,000 fans at Ellis Park, but for all 43,000,000 South Africans. Sports movies have travelled the racial divide before (Remember the Titans and Glory Road are examples), and this is a good addition to the genre.

And having an opportunity to view this as a group added depth to the experience. Whether meeting before or talking after, the variety of people present added richness to the film that is often lacking by simply watching and leaving it behind. From a high school guy commenting from his experience about how sports really can bring people together, to comments from people who have actually had experience on the ground in South Africa, to comments from still others about what struck them; the discussion was good. And that is a great way to experience the movies.

We’ll be planning another round of Theology in the Dark for late March.