Rugby, racism and Nelson Mandela: Local screenwriter’s film ‘Invictus’ hits the big screen

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros.,Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film, "Invictus." (AP Photo/Warner Bros.,Keith Bernstein)
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros.,Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film, "Invictus." (AP Photo/Warner Bros.,Keith Bernstein) ASSOCIATED PRESS

For many South Africans, the most memorable moment in their nation’s history occurred during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

South African President Nelson Mandela, smiling and sporting the green jersey of the Springboks national rugby team, presented the winning trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar. The crowd went wild.

“For just a moment, this torn-up nation loved itself,” said Morro Bay screenwriter Tony Peckham, a native of South Africa. “That’s worth reliving.”

That instant is depicted in the film “Invictus,” which opened Friday.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon — all three of whom were nominated for Golden Globe Awards on Tuesday — the movie follows Mandela’s struggles to reunite a nation ripped apart by decades of racial segregation and civil unrest.

“We all felt so passionate about this project,” said Peckham, who wrote the screenplay.

A turbulent history

Based on John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” “Invictus” is set during one of the most turbulent times in South African history.

Under apartheid, instituted in 1948, nonwhites were not allowed to live, work or socialize in the same areas as whites. They had separate, often inferior, buses, hospitals, restaurants, restrooms and schools.

Apartheid ended in April 1994 as South Africans elected Mandela, the long-jailed leader of the African National Congress, as the nation’s first black president.

Amid riots and bloodshed, Mandela turned to the one thing held dear by South Africans everywhere — sports.

He encouraged black South Africans to support the once-reviled Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. As the underdogs beat team after team, national unity grew.

“He was trying to prevent a civil war,” Peckham said of Mandela.

A moving story

According to Peckham, “Invictus” mirrors his own childhood experiences with apartheid.

“I remember the absolute brutality every day, the separation of whites above all others, the obvious privilege,” he said. “I knew there was something wrong even though I didn’t know what.”

Peckham came to the United States in 1981 to attend film school in San Francisco and later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career. He has lived on the Central Coast for nearly 15 years.

The screenwriter first encountered the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup via a book proposal. “Halfway through reading it, I was crying,” he recalled.

“What moved me was the idea that a man who had been abused so badly for so many years came out with a policy of forgiveness,” said Peckham, whose film credits include “Don’t Say a Word” and “Sherlock Holmes,” which opens Christmas Day.

“Forgiveness isn’t something you do out of obligation. It’s something you enter into to liberate your own spirit.”

He and producer Mace Neufeld decided only one person could play Mandela: Oscar winner Freeman, who received a King Vidor Career Achievement Award from the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in 2006.

For starters, Freeman and the prisoner-turned-president “look like brothers,” Peckham said.

“To me, Morgan Freeman has in person the kind of gravitas that Mandela has,” he added. “He projected that same kind of aura.”

As luck would have it, Freeman and his producing partner, Lori McCreary, were already in talks with author Carlin.

“It was one of those very happy Hollywood accidents where you walk in with something that’s already on the radar,” Peckham said.

To direct the film, Peckham first approached fellow South African Gavin Hood, whose 2005 film “Tsotsi” won an Academy Award.

Then Eastwood picked up “Invictus.” He brought in Damon to play the blond, burly Springboks team captain.

Eastwood has helmed such critically acclaimed films as “Unforgiven,” “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Mystic River.” The four-time Oscar winner directed Freeman to an Academy Award in “Million Dollar Baby.”

“Having Clint was instrumental,” Peckham said. “That’s how a weird film about a game nobody knows about, set during a period of time nobody thinks is relevant, could get made by a Hollywood studio.”

Critically acclaimed

So far, critics have embraced the film.

The New York Times called “Invictus” “an exciting sports movie, an inspiring tale of prejudice overcome and … a fascinating study of political leadership.” Rolling Stone magazine hailed it as “a film that truly is good for the soul.”

The movie debuted at No. 3 at the weekend box office, making $9.1 million.

For Peckham, the greatest compliment came from Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi, who attended the film’s Los Angeles premiere.

Asked whether she was offended by the film’s depiction of her then-strained relationship with her father, Peckham recalled, “She said, ‘No, on the contrary. You’ve taken my father’s legacy and you’ve made it eternal.’ ”