Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

In Clint Eastwood’s moving film, Invictus, we are reminded that this poem was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his 27 years of imprisonment.  Clint Eastwood is surely one of our film-makers with the greatest integrity and, even when one is aware that he is making choices for emotional effect, one doesn’t feel manipulated somehow.  As a born and bred South African it’s not surprising that I would find some flaws and inaccuracies in a film about South Africa made by Americans but, overall, and especially once the interaction between President Mandela and Springbok Rugby Captain Francois Pienaar took off, I came away from watching the DVD with a feeling of something really well done. 

Mandela and Pienaar

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

The project was, I believe, Morgan Freeman’s and he approached Clint Eastwood, having worked with him on films like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.  The question is often asked, “who would play you in a movie about your life?” (My answer would be, some obscure Indie film actor nobody has ever heard of!)  Nelson Mandela could hardly have asked for a better interpreter than Morgan Freeman.

Nelson Mandela has become such an iconic figure that his voice and manner are well-known.  I chanced to be in his presence twice when I was working as the Arts Editor for Radio South Africa.  The first time, I was leaving the studios and, as I walked through the spacious foyer of the SABC in Johannesburg, I became aware of a frisson around me.  Mandela, flanked by bodyguards, was striding into the building, I assume to do some radio link-up somewhere.  His charisma was absolutely palpable.  He was doing nothing but carrying his tall, erect frame through the foyer, but the air felt different.  The second time I was in his presence was at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, internationally renowned as South Africa’s “Theatre of the Struggle”.  Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was nominated for the CNA Literary Award, and he was there in one of his brightly coloured shirts.  After each recipient received their award he went up to them and engaged them in a private conversation.  I was so struck by that personal connection he made.  Of course, his book won too.  Seeing him in person only enhanced his iconic image, and it is a tall order for an actor to capture that.  Morgan Freeman did a superb job; the quiet dignity, the grace, even the vocal timbre and, to a great extent, the accent.

South African accents are notoriously difficult to pull off.  One of the first times I heard an attempt was in the Ben Kingsley film, Ghandi, when he is set upon by South African thugs.  They sounded like a bizarre cross between Australians and Cockneys – nothing like South African hooligans at all.  But Matt Damon nailed the accent.  As I watched and listened I remembered an article I had read in The New Yorker last November, written by Alec Wilkinson, about the dialect coach, Tim Monich, who coached Damon for Invictus.  Monach works not only aurally but also visually and he will write the actors’ lines in what Wilkinson describes as “a faux-phonetic style”.  When I read the article we were staying with my niece and her family in Tennessee and I amused myself no end by giving some of these examples to our American husbands.  It worked!   Here’s one, “Go a hiddens mallet”.  (Try to say it out loud.)  It’s, “Go ahead and smell it.”  Or, “Beck toosa Theffra ka”, which is “Back to South Africa.”  The actor really has to have a knack, though.  Leonardo di Caprio was coached by Tim Monach when he played a White Rhodesian in Blood Diamond and, fine an actor as he is, his accent was not as consistently authentic as Matt Damon’s.  Damon is an interestingly self-effacing actor, who has done a remarkable job of avoiding the media hype that so often goes with that level of fame.  I read once that he was apologetic to Francois Pienaar for not having his physical stature.  I can’t imagine that Pienaar wasn’t gratified to be so well portrayed by Damon, though.

It was interesting to have watched Invictus, set during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, while the 2010 Soccer World Cup is playing out in South Africa.  Even though I’m not sports minded, it does give me a curious thrill to have my home country so much the center of attention.

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