After a torturous history of being treated like second-class citizens, the black population in this country stunned the world by pulling off the unimaginable: voting a black man in as president. After taking office, the newly elected leader confused (and occasionally angered) his constituent base by making very public efforts to reconcile and move forward with his vanquished opponents.
We are talking, of course, not about the United States and Barack Obama, but about South Africa and Nelson Mandela. And — spoiler alert! — that is basically the plot of the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated film Invictus.
The film is more, however, than just a metaphorical, alternative view of American politics and race relations. It comes six months in advance of South Africa — the "Rainbow Nation" — taking its place in the international spotlight as the host country of soccer's World Cup (with the attendant billions, audience-wise). It is in that light that South Africa has suddenly become a hot topic, cinematically speaking.
Though produced and directed by an American studio (Warner Bros.) and filmmaker (Clint Eastwood), Invictus is, of course, based on events in recent South African history, was shot on location entirely in South Africa, and featured a primarily South African cast and crew.
Also likely to be up for a 2009 Academy Award (nominations are announced on February 2) is the South African-made District 9, which is essentially a sci-fi spoof of the ridiculousness of apartheid. And, whereas the country's cinematic community under the apartheid government was undistinguished at best, that scene was energized by the recognition the South African-made Tsotsi received in 2005, as the Academy's Best Foreign Language Film.
Then just two weeks ago in Boston came the British-made Skin. This film looks at the true story of Sandra Laing, a baby girl born in apartheid-era South Africa to two "white" parents who, by all appearances, seems to be black. Rejected by white society, and never really accepted by black society, she struggles to discover her identity. Together, all four films (as well as another 2009 picture, the Norwegian-made Disgrace, starring John Malkovich) explore what it means to be black or white.
We spoke by phone with Skin director Anthony Fabian (who is British, not South African) from his home in London, and asked him for his thoughts on race and reality in contemporary South Africa.
My favorite line in the film is in the courtroom scene, where an Afrikaner stenographer is reading the definition of a white person: "The definition of a white person is a person who in appearance obviously is a white person and who is not generally accepted as a colored person. Or who is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person." And it's clearly Orwellian, crazy, impenetrable, absurd, Kafka-esque. And then the apartheid-regime official adds, "is that clear?" Can you talk about the impenetrability and absurdity of the apartheid regime?
Well, I think Skin was very useful in illustrating how absurd that regime was, because this is a family that clearly stood on the fault lines of that system, and didn't fit the 1001 absurd legislations that existed to uphold that system. There were many, many laws in the statute books which were similar to that definition of what it meant to be white or black. And unfortunately, when you're dealing with human beings, and when race is a construct that is essentially a social construct rather than a biological one, it's very difficult for people to conform to that kind of system. So it's a very useful story to illustrate how that system actually was based on a falsehood. And that however many rules they wanted to set up to barricade people from their humanity, it clearly all fell down in the end, it all fell down. And this is a case that helped it to fall down.