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Why Clint Eastwood’s Mandela film is being made

Warner Brothers studio executives were camped out at The Mount Nelson in Cape Town this summer. They sipped Castle Lager from frosted glasses and name-dropped to the pretty girls at the bar. “Clint, Morgan, Matt? Great guys. Solid. Sure, I could arrange for you to meet Matt Damon, he’s in the room next to mine.”

They were producing Invictus: Clint Eastwood’s account of the 1995 rugby world cup and general South African transformation. The suits pitched the film, while drunk at the Mount Nelson, as representing South Africa’s triumphs being taken seriously on a global scale. Two words you can’t say to a Warner Brothers executive or any South African who believes the upcoming film is a national compliment, a Hollywood backslap or a worldwide thank you for a democracy well done: Gran Torino. That’s the name of a small budget, competent film that Eastwood starred in, directed and sang the theme song to — he croons to the closing credits exactly as a 79-year-old should.

It’s set in American suburbia and cost $33 million to make and scooped $262 million worldwide. This huge profit gave Eastwood license to do whatever picture he wanted. Warner Brothers asked him for a Christmas list and Eastwood chose to adapt a book by John Carlin into Invictus.

Eastwood, if he had a South African bent, could have requested to do a Pumpkin Patch live action trilogy and Warner Brothers would have obliged, letting him re-record the theme song. But that’s Hollywood — and easy to forget when you see pictures of a bleached-hair Damon and a Mandela-looking Freeman.

It’s our recent history endorsed by major celebrities — this isn’t a local, SABC soap-star production. There are American dollars fuelling this picture. South Africans thrive on international recognition, it swells us with pride. If Morgan Freeman wins an Oscar then South Africans will take this as a personal compliment: an indirect nod to the whole country from the academy.

If it’s terrible (and that doesn’t exclude an Oscar win) then there are worse embarrassments than a clunking, sprawling film. Eastwood butchered Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s well-crafted and hilarious novel (set in Savannah, Georgia) where brilliant actors spouted terrible accents. If this happens we’ll scratch it up to a foreigner not understanding Africa’s complexity.

What will be disturbing is a world interest for the wrong reasons. In the states Eastwood could have another $262 million box-office if people draw a vicious comparison between 1995 and our recent election. The studio could see financial legs for the film as a period piece, of a time that has since evaporated. To see a Mandela who isn’t frail, a country without Zuma elected and a divided country promising a future of unity. The rugby winning, though, we’ve definitely kept sorted.