Before we get into today’s movie in our “Running the Race” series, I want to emphasize my view on what makes sports movies work. In my opinion, some of the best sports films are not sports films at all—and by that, I mean that the main conflict in the film is not whether or not a team or athlete wins or loses. The main conflict is usually something bigger than that, an internal conflict within several different characters. And in a good sports movie, that conflict is resolved not only by just showing a team winning or losing, but through good character studies that show us something beyond just a team victory.
And thankfully, most sports movies know this. Let’s look even at the films we’ve talked about already in “Running the Race”: “Facing the Giants” was not just about a team victory, but also about how a team learns to praise and trust God no matter whether they win or lose. In “Remember the Titans”, the fact that the team won revealed an even deeper victory of integration of race that was overcome through the football team. And today’s film, “Invictus”, focuses not just on a team victory but also on what it means for a whole country.
“Invictus” focuses on how Nelson Mandela (played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman) used rugby to help unite South Africa in the 1990’s, after he was elected president of the country. The film opens with him being released from prison, where he was held for almost thirty years for his opposition against apartheid. As he is released and then comes to rise as president, people all over the country are divided about it. But because of this, Mandela knows that there has to be a way to unite the country and bring about something that perhaps South Africa has not seen in a while: forgiveness.
In an early scene, where Mandela’s staff of both blacks and whites is getting together to work, one of his bodyguards, Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge), comes to complain. Mandela tries to comfort him.
MANDELA: When people see me in public, they see my bodyguards. You represent me directly. The Rainbow Nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.
JASON: Reconciliation, sir?
MANDELA: Yes, reconciliation, Jason.
JASON: Comrade President, not long ago, these guys tried to kill us. Maybe even these four guys in my office tried, and often succeeded!
MANDELA: Yes, I know. Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. Please, Jason, try.
And soon, Mandela finds something that he thinks will unite the country, with the whole country watching in support of the same people: rugby. And he meets with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the South Africa rugby team, and encourages him to bring his team, which is struggling, to win the World Cup, not just to bring victory for the team itself, but to lift up the entire nation.
And Pienaar and the team start to grow. They not only work better together, but they find opportunities to serve outside their rugby games, such as volunteering with poor children in South Africa and teaching them how to play. Pienaar even goes with his wife one day to the prison where Mandela was kept, where he thinks to himself the words of a poem that Mandela gave him when they met together for the first time. The poem is called “Invictus” (of course), where the words say “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”.
That poem, by the way, is not exactly theological according to Christianity, but what follows is. One night, Pienaar looks out his hotel window before a game, thinking about what he has learned through Mandela:
PIENAAR: I was thinking… about how you spend thirty years in a tiny cell… and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.
With the encouragement he has found, Pienaar is ready to lead the team to victory at the World Cup, which they do win. When interviewed after the match, Pienaar is asked about the support he and his team had from the sixty-three thousand people in the stadium. “We didn’t need the support of sixty thousand South Africans”, he replies. “We had the support of forty-three million South Africans”.
This isn’t a perfect movie, but I was definitely moved by the idea of forgiveness in “Invictus”. I don’t remember any of the struggles that South Africa had in the 1990’s that this movie talks about, but I feel like this movie probably portrayed it well. It’s amazing how something like rugby can be used to help unite a country—just like God can use any one of us to accomplish His mission, and especially to forgive.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”