By Grace Windsor

Invictus (2009) is a cinematic Hollywood interpretation of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unify South Africa following his elected presidency. Essentially, Eastwood’s depiction of Nelson Mandela reinforces older evolutionist ideas within the twenty-first century. Eastwood’s directive choices attempt to portray an authentic representation of post-apartheid South Africa, but succumbs to the misrepresentations of Nelson Mandela and the political climate during the 1990s. Using Curtis Keim’s Mistaking Africa (2014) to critically interrogate scenes from Invictus[1], we can see that Keim’s notions of ‘helpless Africa’, ‘troubled Africa’, “leftover racism,” and evolutionism are prevalent throughout the film.

Invictus portrays subtle Dark Continent myths and stereotypes of South Africa, which plays into the interest of the exotic for western audiences. Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) appears as a peaceful president, dependant on a white protagonist (played by Matt Damon) to resolve the prominent issue of reuniting a divided South Africa. Eastwood and Freeman’s choice to play Mandela’s character down hides the truth of Mandela’s readiness to fight (even militantly) for freedom.[2]  Film critic Taylor (2009) argues that “as history, it is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion.”  Overall, whilst Invictus attempts to convey the historical chronology of unifying South Africa, it approaches the film from a western perspective, conveying a mythical South Africa that satisfies western audiences.

In his book, Keim (69) introduces the ideology of ‘helpless Africa’ to explain how leftover colonialist ideals contribute to an “American desire to help Africa” (Keim, 69). Such ideas also depict the continent of Africa as the “white man’s burden.” According to Keim, the idea of the white man’s burden encapsulates the “essence of the colonial mentality” (Keim, 47). The poem by Rudyard Kipling is often used to convey an ideology in which God burdens the white man to help others. Steeped in misconceptions of Africa within Hollywood productions Keim states: “Movies too, teach us our African stereotypes…The African Queen, Mogambo and Tarzan The Ape Man” (Keim, 24).

Within Invictus a scene[3] in which a white woman at ‘Water Rubusauana Memorial Congregational Church’ hands out aid to black South African children, depicts the idea of helpless Africa. First, by starting this scene in a church it reminds western audiences of colonialist missions and the prominence of Christianity to civilize the South African nation. Keim describes that during the colonial period “Christian love justified missionary control” (Keim, 45). Through colonialist ideas of helping Africa, Keim introduces the theory of “gift-giving help” as promoting “ideas and tastes that are not good for Africa, foster dependence, weaken local initiative” (91).  Gift-giving help presented through the giving of clothes in the church scene presents Africa as a place of poverty, an idea that is prominent within twenty-first century media as well. While gift-giving help depicts South Africa as a poor nation in need of ‘white’ intervention, this theory also suggests that the help given by the white lady in the film was in the long-term negatively impacting the children through fostering dependence on dark continent myths. Arguably, this scene stereotypes African children in ways that western audiences would find recognizable and therefore reinforces a westernized image of helpless Africa while transmitting notions of evolutionism through the exotic ‘otherness’ portrayal of South Africa.

Invictus further exhibits leftover racist attitudes through its simplistic plot. Keim introduces this theory as continuously “constructing Africa as inferior” (Keim, 7). Keim’s idea of “leftover racism” is prevalent throughout various forms of representing Africa throughout the media and within Hollywood. Keim also describes how newspapers, films and magazines succumb to the misrepresentation of Africa when portraying the continent to an audience (Keim, 16-31). In Invictus, Eastwood also falls into the category of viewing Africa as inferior through the plot focusing on a world cup victory as the total reconciliation process for apartheid. As one film reviewer (Hornaday 2009) suggests: “Eastwood adopts a flat, uninflected style for ‘Invictus,’ wisely letting this remarkable story tell itself with a minimum of flourish or underlining.” Two pivotal scenes[4][5] portray the theatrical progression of dissolving the tensions of apartheid, while drawing on the film’s core themes such as the elimination of racism through transformation and unity.

The first scene on the rugby playing field imposes the inextricable links between apartheid and the Springbok’s (the white South African rugby team). The white Afrikaans who had attended the game held on to their colonialist pride through singing the old national anthem and waving old apartheid flags. The left-over racism, however, is described by Mandela’s character as a “constitutional right.” Such an attitude conveys Mandela as one of an understanding President who attempted to bridge black and white culture. Mandela’s character conveys political awareness through allowing systems of restorative justice, as support for the springbok team was a sign of unity, as well as an effort at appeasing the former occupant. Eastwood represents the appeasement and willingness of Mandela to allow this form of left-over racism as an attempt to keep South Africa from falling into chaos. As film critic A. Getz (2009) states, “Mandela opted for reconciliation over retribution. His insistence that the Springboks remain the Springboks was just one of his many bipartisan gestures, but it would be hard to overstate the symbolic significance of this particular one.” Whilst Eastwood hints at addressing the realities of the restorative justice process in South Africa he succumbs to portraying left-over racist ideals before the turn of the century.

One could also argue that ideas of Keim’s ‘evolutionism’ are expressed through the symbolism and influence of the Springbok rugby team. Keim describes the evolutionist ideals of colonists during the 1800s as “the widely held evolutionist myths made it difficult to sustain positive images of non-Europeans.” (76). The racial logics suggest that non-European people needed guidance to become civilized and in doing so only became humanized once they accepted Christian values. It also suggests that non-white Africans were subordinate in comparison to Europeans in terms of education and politics. In the film, Nelson Mandela’s character is depicted as a peaceful leader who appears at times omniscient and other times slightly ignorant. Yet, Eastwood focuses on the white protagonist as the leader who truly convinced the hearts and minds unifying post-apartheid South Africa. Evolutionist ideology becomes evident as black South African people, even Mandela, appear unequipped to politically restore South Africa without white intervention. Invictus can be criticised for accentuating ideas of unification primarily through a sports game—rugby, omitting the actual tough historical restorative process within South Africa, specifically the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela, a man who defended himself in court certainly was more knowledgeable than the way he is portrayed in Invictus[6]. Mandela’s character is portrayed as subordinate to affluent white society rendering him politically ignorant.

In summary, using Keim’s concepts of helpless Africa, troubled Africa, left-over racism and evolutionism, the film Invictus can be criticised for inaccurately depicting the history of apartheid within South Africa. Invictus conforms to Hollywood ideals to appease a Western audience and perpetuates a view of Nelson Mandela needing white assistance to sustain a positive restorative process. Eastwood’s choice to depict black South Africans’ need for a white protagonist also encapsulates the prominence of evolutionist ideas within Hollywood as on-going from the colonial period in Africa. Conclusively, whilst Invictus attempts to portray the historical chronology of a newly independent South Africa in a realistic way, audiences are presented with misconceptions of Africa common within many Hollywood interpretations of the continent.



Works cited


Invictus. Dir Clint Eastwood. Perf Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. Warner Bros Pictures, 2009

Works consulted


Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts The Legacy Of Apartheid. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2004

Keim, Curtis A. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview, 1999.


Mandela, Nelson, ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ Rivonia trial, 20 April 1964

Film Reviews:

Ebert, R. (2009). Invictus Movie Review & Film Summary (2009) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

Getz, A. (2009). The Real Story of ‘Invictus’. [online] Newsweek. Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

Hornaday, A. (2009). Movie review: Clint Eastwood’s rugby drama ‘Invictus,’ with Matt Damon. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

Orr, C. (2009). The Mini-Review: ‘Invictus’. [online] New Republic. Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

Taylor, E. (2009). Invictus: All’s Well That Ends Well. [online] L.A. Weekly. Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].

[1] The assigned task was to apply ideas and concepts of Keim to critically investigate Invictus, as well as consult published film reviews (2009)

[2] Mandela, Nelson, ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ Rivonia trial, 20 April 1964

[3] Invictus. Dir Clint Eastwood. Perf Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. Warner Bros Pictures, 2009 (26:56-27:57)

[4] Invictus. Dir Clint Eastwood. Perf Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. Warner Bros Pictures, 2009 (22:03-23:31)

[5] Invictus. Dir Clint Eastwood. Perf Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. Warner Bros Pictures, 2009 (02:00:51-02:06:38)

[6] See Nelson Mandela ‘I am prepared to die’ 1964)