It’s that time of year again – you know, when Clint Eastwood releases a trailer for a movie that looks fascinating and completely different from the last thing he did, and your triple reactions run something like this: 1: Hmmm, Clint’s got a movie coming out – didn’t we just see ‘Gran Torino’ five minutes ago?; 2: Hmmm, it’s got Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela in it – how come no one ever thought of that before?; 3: Hmmm, it’s a movie about the 1995 Rugby World Cup – how come no one ever thought of that before? Well, no one ever thought of making a gripping film out of the ancient ‘old racist bloke in Detroit has his heart melted by a Hmong family and saves the world through non-violent atonement metaphor before singing a jazz song over the early end credits’ plot either. So I’m rather excited about ‘Invictus’ – biopics are always a risky proposition, but there’s an implication in the trailer that this one might do more than retread what we already know or think we know.
Mandela has rightly become an unimpeachable moral figure, but it’s par for the course to ignore what he actually stood for. Mandela is more than a mascot, though our culture might prefer him this way; but he actually has things to say. Icons of moral authority who act toward the common good are often treated this way: I was astonished yesterday to see the digital wall montage that Glenn Beck uses to underline the gravity of what he’s saying – accompanied by the invocation ‘Speak Without Fear’, an image of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr appeared, leading into Beck denouncing (yet again) concerns about climate change, and announcing his willingness to go to prison for the right to eat steak. We might imagine Dr King would agree that particular cause doesn’t exactly warrant a new letter from a Birmingham jail.
In fact, we might also imagine that a reading of Dr King’s actual thoughts about the actual world would surprise Glenn Beck and his audience. In fact, and let me not be misunderstood: it’s kind of obscene for a man who recently imagined aloud his fantasy to poison Nancy Pelosi and joked about President Obama setting the people on fire to attempt to inveigle his way into the legacy of non-violence enacted by a man who, there can be little doubt, Beck would be denouncing if he were alive today. But if his audience were being exposed to what he actually said about the world, I’d tune in every day. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea – maybe we could organise a campaign to encourage talk show hosts only to use images of moral leaders if they’re going to spend two minutes every show actually quoting what they actually said. Beck could begin with some reference to Dr King’s ‘Giant Triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism’; maybe he could just agree to read a paragraph a day from his ‘Beyond Vietnam‘ speech…
Lest I get ahead of myself, let’s get back to the movies – I’m hopeful that the Eastwood/Freeman Mandela is more than a cliche, and resists the urge to laze in platitudes. Clint’s last movie showed something about quiet authority, and portrayed a radical idea: that justice or peace sometimes costs its proponents a very great deal; it did this without barnstorming speeches or spelling it out; it gets better in the memory the more I think about it. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in ‘Gran Torino’ felt like the culmination of every iconic character Clint has played – a man with no name/Dirty Harry all grown up and full of regret for past mistakes, who makes a choice to invert it all, and live beyond the narrow circle of selfishness. Mandela made that choice a long time ago – who knows what Clint’s vision of a moment in his life might bring? We might be about to see a film about an iconic figure that transcends the typical mistakes of making him unreachable to the rest of us; we might actually see a portrayal of Mandela that tells us something about leadership rather than merely represents him as a kind of political pop star.