May 5, 2010 / 1:28 AM / 8 years ago

"16th Man" a powerful docu look at rugby, politics

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Many of the “30 for 30” documentaries on ESPN have been about fascinating but little-known stories from the world of sports. The subject of “The 16th Man” is endlessly fascinating but not at all obscure.

The film gives the unvarnished historical facts about the role of rugby in helping to unify the badly divided black and white populations of South Africa. It is the same story dramatized last year in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman as newly elected president Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as rugby team captain Francois Pienaar.

Freeman, who was Oscar-nominated for his performance, serves as an executive producer and narrator of the doc. As powerful as Freeman’s performance was in the film, not one iota of drama and emotion is sacrificed by hearing this story from the lips of those who lived it.

In fact, critics of “Invictus” who complained that the motion picture had too much rugby and not enough about Mandela and the political climate might find themselves more satisfied with the documentary. (John Carlin, who wrote the ESPN piece, is the author of “Playing the Enemy,” on which the theatrical film was based.)

Some sportswriters jokingly refer to their section of the news as the toy department. There’s nothing trivial about “16th Man,” though, or the symbolic value a rugby tournament had for a bitterly divided nation.

After years of apartheid, animosity between the races in South Africa ran deep. For the ruling whites, rugby had been as much a passion as a sport. For the black majority, however, the all-white national team, the Springboks, was just another reminder of the segregated system they had fought years to destroy.

Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, saw the 1995 World Cup tournament as an opportunity to put blacks and whites on the same side. His magnanimous gesture to host the games and back the Springboks earned his government the goodwill of suspicious whites even as it showed angry blacks a path to reconciliation. Dressed in a Springbok uniform for the finals, a game against heavily favored New Zealand, Mandela became the team’s 16th man.

Interviews with team members, particularly Pienaar, capture their surprise and admiration of Mandela’s support. Meanwhile, an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who saw rugby as a vestige of minority white rule, indicates the doubts Mandela had to overcome from his own supporters.

With its amazing story and heartfelt reminiscenses, “16th Man” does as much to illustrate the potential, passion and power of sports as anything ever made for theatrical release.

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