You might never take a test that will ask you what the story of a homeless black boy adopted by a southern white Republican family has in common with the groundbreaking end of apartheid in South Africa. But if you see two current movies, The Blind Side and Invictus, you’ll be surprised at how they overlap. The Blind Side concerns a true story about an uprooted, oversized and overlooked black teenager who is adopted by a white southern family and becomes a successful student and real-life football hero. At a critical juntion in his academic life, he is inspired by a 19th century British poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Understanding its message of courage and heroism, our hero writes an intelligent essay assuring that he will graduate from high school, be eligible for an athletic scholarship and embark on a future far different from any he could have previously imagined.
In Invictus, Nelson Mandela, newly elected president of South Africa must face the challenge of how to overcome residual hatred and forge a bond beteen white and black in a country that must get over its past in order to move forward. He chooses the arena of sports as his best shot at reconciliation. He must get the Blacks to cheer for the almost exclusively white rugby team, a feat he accomplishes by setting an example and donning the Springbok’s shirt and hat. In order to spur the lagging Springboks to international victory, Mandela engages the Afrikaner captain of the team whom he inspires with his favorite poem, Invictus, by the 19th century English poet William Ernest Henley. Understanding its message of courage and perseverance, the captain leads his team to resounding victory, guaranteeing that his countrymen will embark on a future far different from any they could have previously imagined. An interesting footnote, not mentioned in the movie, is that the winning goal was earned by the token Jew on the pristine team.
Both movies are based on real life and both are formulaic in taking us to the expected victorious wins on the playing field, and more cornily, in the hearts of men. Even though Invictus concerns the fate of a nation and its example for a continent, its insistence on a tone of reverential nobility strips the film of any heat. Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is thoughtful, gracious, pragmatic and resolute, but these traits, so essential to the leader’s personal charisma, don’t lend themselves to drama. A scene in which we see him dancing and flirting with a much younger woman was clearly intended to humanize his saintliness but only comes across as embarrassing and poorly cut, to boot. Similarly, the team captain, played by Matt Damon, is a sensitive athlete who is good to his parents, his girlfriend, his mates and even his maid. This movie would have been infinitely better with a Colin Farrell bad-boy playing that part and with the screenwriter finding an excuse for that South African bad-girl, Winnie Mandela, to have a cameo.
By contrast, the small story of Big Mike and his new white family is energetically charged and dynamic. Sandra Bullock plays the mother as a feisty, feminine powerhouse who won’t compromise her tight designer clothes and jewelry when she saunters into the Memphis ghetto. At one point, listening to the depradations and catcalls of a good old southerner as her black son fumbles a few plays in the game, she stirs herself to a steel magnolia position, faces the man and threatens to close that “crotch-mouth” for him if he won’t do it himself. She is the Mama every kid deserves - fiercely protective and unafraid to speak her mind or follow her heart. It’s a passionate performance that electrifies the subject because Sandra Bullock (and the real Leigh Anne) don’t look anything like Mother Theresa but have the same nobility of purpose. This is a rare example of a movie that’s a popular hit without dumbing down its subject to achieve that. The problems of black addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy and criminality are faced head-on. The pathos of a mother losing her son and of a son losing his whole family is also confronted as are the expected stereotypes of prejudice, bigotry and class snobbery. It takes a lot of money to change Big Mike’s life and this movie is not a prescription for social change since few people would have the resources, and more significantly, the unselfish desire to do what this family did. But just as those two poets reached across the centuries to inspire individuals to greater heights than they believed they could attain, The Blind Side will leave you with a lump in your throat along with a swell in your heart; it gives us splendid role models to think about in each of our own lives.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here