- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

JOHANNESBURG

South Africans say a new Hollywood film about sport, race and Nelson Mandela will tell the world about the country’s history of struggle and triumph despite some criticism that the lead roles are played by American actors.

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” depicts Mr. Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, as a strategist for racial reconciliation, working to bring whites and blacks together after the end of apartheid by supporting the country’s mostly white national rugby team.

Mr. Mandela, once reviled by many whites who saw him as a terrorist, strode onto the field after South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup final wearing a national team shirt and earned rapturous cheers from a crowd dominated by whites.

Chester Williams, the only nonwhite member of South Africa’s 1995 championship rugby team, hopes the nation will come together for next year’s football World Cup as it did 15 years ago.

The movie is “a great opportunity for everyone, not only in South Africa but the rest of the world, to see what Nelson Mandela has done for the country,” said Mr. Williams, who helped coach the actors during the shooting of the movie in South Africa.

Most South Africans won’t see “Invictus” until its general release Thursday, but the movie already has made headlines and dominated talk-show radio.

It has not been universally embraced, with some complaining that South Africans should be starring in their own stories. Mr. Mandela is portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon plays the rugby team captain. But South Africans have key roles, including Patrick Mofokeng as Mr. Mandela’s chief bodyguard.

Mr. Mofokeng endorsed Mr. Freeman, saying at Tuesday’s premiere in Johannesburg: “He was made to play the role. I think he is Nelson Mandela.”

Acclaimed South African actor John Kani, who is not in the movie, said he understood international movies needed big stars like Mr. Freeman to draw investors and audiences. But Mr. Kani was worried that South Africans would never get a chance to claim “bankable” status if producers and the government did not try to develop and showcase local talent.

Still, Mr. Kani said movies like “Invictus” had broader benefits, telling the world South Africa’s inspiring story.

In many ways, though, South Africa remains racially divided. Blacks denied education and opportunity for generations under apartheid remain in impoverished townships on the outskirts of cities where the best neighborhoods remain largely white.

Some blacks complain that Mr. Mandela spent too much time on racial reconciliation and too little on economic development or fighting AIDS. Black critics say whites did little in response to gestures Mr. Mandela made, such as donning the rugby shirt or visiting a white separatist enclave to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

Sport, too, has not overcome the past. Attempts to reach out to black fans and players have repeatedly run up against rugby’s legacy of racism, and black fans have been attacked at rugby stadiums.

Soccer is seen as the sport of blacks, and excitement over South Africa becoming the first African nation to host a soccer World Cup has been tempered by charges from some blacks that white South Africans didn’t support the bid and won’t go to the games.

“We’re still living the change; we’re still living the transition,” said Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union. Like the championship rugby team’s Mr. Williams, Mr. Hoskins is of mixed race.

Mr. Hoskins said in an interview that Mr. Mandela’s bodyguards feared he was risking his life when he went to a rugby stadium full of white fans. He said that he did not know how much planning and force of will went into that moment in 1995 until he read the book by British journalist John Carlin that inspired the movie.

Mr. Hoskins said even more people will learn by watching the film of “the stature of the man, determined to go in there and make it work, determined to make it successful, to make his country successful.”

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