'Invictus' and 'Princess and the Frog' show an empathetic multicultural world

Actor Matt Damon spoke to Harry Smith about the new movie "Invictus," preparing for his role as a South African rugby player and his experience acting with Morgan Freeman.
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 11, 2009

The title of "Invictus," Clint Eastwood's stirring drama starring Morgan Freeman as South African leader Nelson Mandela, refers to the William Ernest Henley poem that Mandela had memorized while he was imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island for anti-apartheid activities. The poem's most famous lines -- "my head is bloodied but unbowed," "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul" -- aptly capture the extraordinary character and determination of Mandela, who emerged after 27 years of captivity not broken but tempered, his moral clarity sharpened to a diamantine fineness.

It's just that laserlike sense of rectitude and perception that propels "Invictus," which depicts an episode early in Mandela's presidency, when he urged the captain of the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, François Pienaar (Matt Damon) to win the 1995 World Cup. The mostly white Springboks were reviled by black South Africans, for whom its emblem and colors symbolized years of oppression and violence. Perhaps Mandela's most urgent task during his early days was to unify a fatally divided country around a single, animating idea. What better way than through the ritualized aggression and reconciliation of sport?

"Invictus," which features outstanding performances from both its lead actors, succeeds wonderfully on its simplest level, as a portrait of political genius. Freeman's Mandela, like Sean Penn's Harvey Milk, emerges as a canny, expansive man in full, including a few moments of playful flirtation.

But at its most powerful, "Invictus" operates on another plane entirely, as a depiction of pluralism at its most dynamic, unruly and inspiring. Most films trace the transformation of an individual protagonist, as he or she embarks on a quest and emerges irrevocably changed. Here, that character is South Africa itself, as Mandela tries mightily to wrench a country riven by tribal division and racism into a future of healing and peace.

The most cathartic moment in "Invictus" doesn't occur during the Springboks' performance on the field, or even Mandela's triumph over his skeptics. It's when an announcer at the climactic game observes that he's never seen so many flags in a stadium at one time. Score one for diversity at its most bumptious, messy and full-throated.

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Many flags fly, too, in "The Princess and the Frog," at least metaphorically. The Disney cartoon, set in 1920s New Orleans, has been anticipated with equal amounts of excitement and apprehension, as it introduces the studio's first African American princess, Tiana. Given a gorgeously expressive speaking and singing voice by Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls"), Tiana works as a waitress while she tries to save money for a restaurant of her own; when Prince Naveen arrives in town, they wind up crossing paths and, thanks to a local voodoo doctor, being changed into frogs. They don't embark on their quest as much as hop along it, as they find their way to home and true love through the swampy wilds of the Louisiana bayou.

There are several reasons to celebrate "The Princess and the Frog," not least among them Randy Newman's exquisite songs (ranging from barrelhouse jazz to zydeco to a lilting Cajun waltz), the hand-drawn animation that gives it an instant imprimatur as a classic, and the subtle but powerful plot point involving Tiana's strong, supportive relationship with her father.

Certainly the most gratifying element is Tiana herself, who is refreshing and even revolutionary not only because she embodies a much-needed alternative to the blond, blue-eyed Disney ideal, but because she evinces an ethic of hard work and perseverance that takes the classic princess trope out of passivity and helplessness and into competence and self-determination. (In a clever twist, if anyone is helpless in "The Princess and the Frog," it's the prince.)

For Tiana, the inevitable Kiss isn't a gesture of enchantment and rescue, but strictly a business proposition. And if fate confects for her to open her heart just a little bit while pursuing her dream, that doesn't dilute her character. Surely Mandela would recognize a fellow spirit in Tiana: Even while growing up poor in the segregated South and suffering the condescension of men who dismiss her ambitions as unseemly for "a little woman of your background," she never ceases to be the master of her fate or the captain of her soul.

Still, as welcome as "The Princess and the Frog" is as an opportunity for little girls of color to see themselves as worthy of romance and empowerment (and not necessarily in that order), it's possible to have even higher hopes for the movie to operate on a larger, collective level -- the same level that rugby occupied for Mandela in "Invictus." Because not only little black and brown girls are going to see themselves in Tiana and her beauty, courage and determination. Little white girls, indeed viewers of all races and ages, will watch the movie, and identify with a heroine who may not literally look like them but who harbors their own foibles, aspirations and dreams. Whether it's Mandela asking blacks to root for the Springboks in "Invictus," or "The Princess and the Frog" itself, each invites a majority culture to identify with a minority -- one in the spirit of forgiveness, the other in the spirit of empathy -- and come away with a more expansive sense of collective identity.

And here lies perhaps the most brilliant move on the part of Disney in "The Princess and the Frog": It set the movie in New Orleans, that delicious, cosmopolitan melting pot of tribes and cultures, languages and hues. No particular race is acknowledged in "The Princess and the Frog," which features characters of a multitude of shades and dialects.

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