Morgan Freeman's role in “Invictus” is a universe away from his role in “Lean on Me,” even if both characters turn around troubled institutions. The latter film, from 1989, features Freeman as Joe Clark, the real life principal who brought tough love to a near militaristic level. Clark, who coins himself “Batman” for his penchant for carrying a slugger along with his megaphone, had the charge of saving a Paterson, New Jersey high school from drugs and test scores not meeting the basic skills level. He begins his tenure by expelling all the bad seeds he can find, whereas Freeman's Nelson Mandela, in “Invictus,” unites the "Afrikaners" – white South Africans, the supporters of apartheid – with the liberated Africans.
Joe Clark couldn't use sports to inspire Eastside High: chances are all the school's athletes would have been academically ineligible for varsity play. Yet the newly elected Mandela, circa mid-90s, sees quite an opportunity in his country's beloved “Springboks” - the national rugby team. He urges his people to continue using the team's name and colors, in spite their associations to apartheid. Soon enough, Freeman's Mandela has box seats and is proudly donning yellow and green. He knows a winning team can unite his nation and inspire citizens to end crime and boost the economy.
The team is led by Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, who finally redeems himself for his odious villain-athlete in 1992's “School Ties.” (Rule of thumb: don't ever try to out-man Brendan Fraser.) His team is producer-director Clint Eastwood's metaphor for a nation rising to stand proud on two diverse, yet unified feet. “Invictus” is much more than a sports flick, even if the championship match is overplayed in screen time. Fault may lie in Freeman's being restrained to the sidelines, though the septuagenarian Mandela would have to lead by example at this point of his eventful life. Formulaic as it may be, the film is about triumph far beyond the field.
Note: the film's title comes from William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus," an inspiration to Mandela during his confinement. Read the poem here.