Invictus & District 9: A South African’s Perspective

With the recent District 9 and Invictus craze, South Africa has been under the spotlight. Sure, with films like Tsotsi winning an Academy Award and Yesterday being nominated, there has been interest in our unique history and culture in the past.

District 9 and Invictus, however, have sparked a Hollywood interest with Peter Jackson and Clint Eastwood wanting their fingers in our pie. And we South Africans are revelling in it!

Alien blockbuster District 9 is probably the first sci-fi film to come out of South Africa – an alien spaceship breaks down over Johannesburg and the aliens are rounded up and dumped in a squatter camp called ‘District 9’. The film is about the problems encountered in their relocation due to the South Africans’ fear of the aliens and squalor in the area. We’ve had it up to our ears in historical documentaries, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and apartheid stories. Now, we want to move forward. This film did just that, moving South Africa to a place where we can leap forward in the film industry without being known as “that country with the history they can’t let go of”.

“We’ve had it up to our ears in historical documentaries, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and apartheid stories.”

It was a beautifully done film and the political slants did not go unnoticed. The fact that most of the soldiers in the army were white was a bit concerning. I, personally, haven’t seen a white person in uniform since 2000. The obvious references to apartheid were hilarious – “slegs menslike” (humans only) being in direct reference to “slegs blankes” (whites only). The development of the squatter camp for the aliens and their forced removals were all in noticeable comparison to the Group Areas Act.

The more subtle allusions to our history were noticed by few, and kind of hit a nerve. With the recent xenophobic attacks in townships, our country suffered a massive blow in international relations with a few people trying to drive foreigners out of the townships using violence. The movie did not skip a beat here in using the line, “it’s not like they’re from another country…if they were from another country it would be fine.” It made a few of us giggle in the cinema, but the uneasiness of the situation still lingers. It was a bit of a punch to the sternum.

Portrayal of Nigerians, however, went a bit overboard as they’re depicted to be almost like Neanderthals, practicing voodoo and eating parts of the aliens so to gain their powers. Sure, the Nigerians who come into South Africa with the drug and arms trade do cause a bit of trouble but even this is too much for willing suspension of disbelief.

The depiction of protagonist Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) was the typical depiction of a simpleton Afrikaner. His overdone accent and constant use of Afrikaans slang like “fokken’” and “bliksem”, the constant derogatory use of the word “prawn” to describe the aliens (a subtle reference to a household pest in Johannesburg, the Parktown prawn, as well as a political reference to black people being derogatorily referred to as “kaffirs”) may make people laugh but is not the sort of stock portrayal we want the world to see.

The fact that Wikus is ostracised once he starts turning into a “prawn” is a reminder of how whites who joined the struggle were ostracised. However, the fact that the army then tried to use him as a weapon is a Hollywood concept, which provided much of the entertainment.

Invictus, on the other hand, is one that takes South Africa back in time to when the struggle was won, but not yet over. It’s about Nelson Mandela’s hand in South Africa winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the way in which he and Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, faced the struggle of symbolically uniting a divided country. This film milks one of the most emotional and volatile parts of our history for all its worth. Nelson Mandela, played by the great Morgan Freeman, was the selling point. One great man being played by another. This was the strongest part of the film, though I find myself a bit disappointed.

I remember the day well. I was eleven years old, still fresh from the glory of our election. My parents had fought in the struggle, giving the best part of their lives to a fight in which they knew they might have been killed. Afrikaans, rugby and the green and gold colours, still symbols of our oppression, lingered along with the old flag with Die Stem as our national anthem.

“Invictus left me feeling proud to have experienced that part of our history.

South Africa hosting the 1995 World Cup was a bone of contention to all of us who still felt that sting of the old regime. But man, was it a legendary experience! I remember sitting on our couch armrest as the seconds ticked by towards the end. When that glorious drop kick went over the post, I recall my uncle saying “another victory for the white man!” Instead of being snide, my cousins and I celebrated, because this was our new country – our country – winning something. Something we never experienced before. I didn’t understand it then, but the film made me see what it meant for our country.

Now, 15 years later, I have never been more proud of the green and gold. However, I wish the story had been told better. The actual story is great – Mandela’s role in us winning that World Cup and what it meant in the unification of our country is phenomenal – but the feeling of pride, weepiness and emotional tugging at the heartstrings overshadows just how badly the film was made.

One bone of contention is the accent. Nobody can get the South African accent right. Matt Damon kind of succeeded but Freeman fell flat, getting Mandela’s mannerisms right but failing to get the voice down. He was more Morgan Freeman than he was Nelson Mandela. Hell, one of the players sounded Australian!

The storyline is thin and weak. There are no real sub-plots and I was left unfulfilled in my expectations of getting into the mind of Mandela, one of the world’s greatest leaders. Other than him explaining to the National Sports Council why it was important to retain the Springbok logo and colours, not much was done in describing what makes this man so great.

It was a proud moment, and even though I knew how it ended, when Francois Pienaar said, “we didn’t have the support of 63,000 South Africans today. We had the support of 42 million South Africans,” I was driven to tears.

Invictus left me feeling proud to have experienced that part of our history, but District 9 left me feeling proud to be South African, which is more of a feat than milking our history. Both films didn’t do South Africa justice in some ways, but both have kind of contributed to the upliftment of film-making and global interest in South Africa. I give both films a hearty thumbs up for being from my home country. I give both a thumbs down for not being able to tell our stories well enough to tell the world “this is who we are”.

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8 thoughts on “Invictus & District 9: A South African’s Perspective

  1. A really intriguing piece, Nikita. It’s always interesting to hear a local perspective. However, I think it’s a pretty impossible request for any film to tell us “this is who we are.” I’m not sure that’s the role of cinema, not in the all-encompassing way you put it. Just look at Baz Lurhmann and “Australia” (hell, he even took the country for the title!) – he sought to create a sweeping, nationalistic epic and to some extent succeeded, but also worked in highly stylised archetypes, nowhere near a realistic portrayal of ‘who we are.’

    To me, cinema is all about telling subjective stories. They’re never going to please everyone, nor should they be shouldered with the crushing responsibility of capturing or representing a nation. I think the best thing to come out of these two films is the exposure South Africa has received as a filmmaking community. May you guys continue to make such innovative, intelligent cinema (referring to “District 9” of course).

    And hey, the football world cup is on in South Africa this year. Surely there’s a feature in there somewhere?!

  2. Hi Nikkita, excellent article! I would actually go further and say District 9 is one of the best Sci-fi films of the last decade. Invictus doesn’t come out here till Feb 5th.

  3. Great article on both these movies. I do disagree about the stereotypes in D9 though – I think a lot of the stereotypical issues were way to accurate and this was not picked up by a lot of people. Certain Nigerians that do inhabit South Africa are as bad as the one’s portrayed – if they don’t like you, they will kill you. Luckily, most people will never encounter this type of person whilst living in SA. It was the same with Wikus – he was VERY Afrikaner to the point where I got quite irritated with him whilst watching the movie.

    This was something that Invictus lacked though – there were way to many continuity errors and even though I was beaming with pride when I left the cinema, I just felt that we were done wrong with regards to true accuracy. Another problem with Invictus was that the role Mandela played seemed to be over-the-top. Remembering that period in SA, I do believe he was involved with rugby but probably not as much as was portrayed in the movie.

    Which leads us to EXACTLY why these movies were brilliant – these aren’t local movies. These are Hollywood stories. And these “foreigners” have taken local scenarios and, even though there were flaws, made them so well that you, as a South African, were able to identify and be proud of the movie.

  4. Hi Nikita, well done on your writing skills however I very much disagree with your commrnts on both movies. Both D9 and Evictus did this country proud with excellent story lines as well as the message they portraid.Everything portraid in D9 whether it was underlying or not were all very correct and accurate.I haven’t seen Evictus as yet but i’m sure what you say about it I will probably disagree with as well.LOL guess we will have to see.take care

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