Finally Ready for a Close-Up

John Malkovich and Jessica Haines in Disgrace, courtesy of Paladin


South Africa is having a bit of a cinematic moment. Neill Blomkamp’s rambunctious sci-fi flick District 9, now in its seventh week in US theaters, has become a sleeper hit.  And Disgrace, based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee, came out last Friday.

Two of most mainstream offerings are yet to come: Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which focuses on Nelson Mandela and the world-title rugby match that helped end the apartheid era (out in December), and The Bang Bang Club, about daredevil photographers who documented that same period’s most turbulent clashes. That one is scheduled for early 2010 release.

The shared theme of all these films is the softening of appalling black-white relations into something more hopeful and humane. Disgrace (which stars John Malkovich as an English professor dismissed for having an affair with a black student), in particular, demonstrates how difficult, frustrating, and morally complicated this recovery process can be.

Considering the unpredictability of production and distribution schedules, so-called trends like the South Africa moment we’re having now usually involve some degree of coincidence. That said, there’s something behind this outpouring of films about South Africa’s apartheid legacy, and it may be right here in the U.S.

“If you read Obama’s book, Dreams of My Father, the whole question is, ‘Who am I, where do I belong, am I white, am I black,'” said Anthony Fabian, writer and director of Skin, which comes out at the end of this month. Fabian’s fact-based drama stars Sophie Okonedo (The Secret Life of Bees) as Sandra Laing, a genetic anomaly–her parents are white, but she looks black–who became a cause célèbre for racial integration. The UK-based filmmaker has been developing the film for almost a decade, so he’s not exactly jumping on a bandwagon. “I just happened to come across this story, which I found incredibly compelling,” he explained. Plenty of films have been made about anti-apartheid activists–from the Denzel Washington vehicle Cry Freedom to Phillip Noyce’s Catch A Fire–but “no one had tackled the impact of that struggle on ordinary people,” Fabian added.

Invictus–by all appearances, the very definition of Oscar bait–may have a bigger impact on audiences than all the other South Africa films combined.  With his twinkly gravitas, Morgan Freeman is perfect for the Mandela role. It’s a real career-capper for the actor; unsurprisingly, he brought the idea to Eastwood, not the other way around.

Fabian, for his part, isn’t impressed. “I think the Clint Eastwood film is very much trying to ride on the 2010 excitement about the World Cup in South Africa,” he sniffs. “To be honest, I don’t think the world needs yet another film about Nelson Mandela.”