42, based on the life of Jackie Robinson, an American baseball hero, is the second movie I’ve watched since Invictus, a Movie on How Sports and Politics Became Intertwined, the story of Nelson Mandela using the loyalty to a sports team, bringing White and Black South Africans together, to save his government.

In 1994, a year after South Africa’s first multiracial democratic election and Mandela being elected as President, the country hosted the Rugby World Cup, the White Afrikaners’ sport that ordinarily had the majority of the people — Bantu, Colored, Asian — cheering for the opposition. But Mandela befriended the Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar, and persuaded him to take the players out into Black communities and be in contact with people other than Afrikaners. Fortunately, the team had one very popular and visible Black star player.

The Springbok

From The Guardian, quoting Francois Pienaar,

“During those six weeks (leading up to the final game) what happened in this country was incredible. I’m still gobsmacked when I think back to the profound change that happened. We started obviously with a great leader with a fantastic vision who realised that sport is important for the Afrikaner white community and to earn their respect and trust … … On the other side I have such a respect for what (Mandela) had to go through in the African National Congress because the springbok was a symbol of apartheid. The majority of South Africans never supported the Springboks, … (but) he asked them and we Afrikaners came to the party in terms of playing good rugby, building a nice momentum towards the final, (and) things happened in South Africa that were just magical.”

For the final there were 63,000 people in the stadium and 62,000 were White. With a stroke of PR genius, Mandela appeared in the green-and-gold Springbok jersey and cap: “It’s well documented that Mr. Mandela walked out into Ellis Park in front of a predominantly White crowd, very much an Afrikaner crowd, wearing a springbok on his heart and how they shouted, ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!’ because what he’d promised he delivered. And when the final whistle blew this country changed forever. It’s incomprehensible.”

I needed to get my mind around the fact that people actually identify that strongly with a sports team, care that much about a ball game. I also wondered what the consequences for national unity would be when players on the team come from different, often antagonistic parts of the society. While pondering this, 42 somehow came to my attention and I decided to watch it as a way into understanding how sports fans deal with incorporating society’s diversity into the team. I also wondered how individuals from different sectors of the society, different social classes, essentially different cultures, could play the game together. By definition, each game has its own set of rules and each player in the team has a role, a set of behaviors in relation to the other players. The rules and roles are explicit, known to everyone, to be followed and enforced. Winning or losing depends upon it. A player must be judged by how s/he performs in that role; nothing else about that person should be relevant to the game. So – what happens when society’s rules about the players’ relationships to one another in everyday life contradicts the simplicity and purity of the rules of the game?

I know absolutely nothing about team sports and never watch ball games. My husband, Ravi, came to America as an adult, so I suppose as a boy he followed cricket but he never talked about it or any other sport. Not until I was in my mid-forties did I hear talk of team sports, not until the mid-1970s when I returned to school for an MBA, to the Kellogg School of Management, into an academic environment quite different from that of my anthropology/sociology school days. In the business school classroom students discussing any aspect relating to management used a vocabulary drawn from sports (mostly football, I think) that was totally unintelligible to me, and they carried sports magazines around with them, some of them keeping a magazine open inside an upright textbook on the desk, reading it while the professor lectured.

Then recently, in a long conversation with Arun, I told him I had intended to write a blog post on 42, which is on sports and racism with political implications for our time, but found the movie too upsetting and dropped the idea. At which point my dear son reminded me that in grade school he had been a baseball fan, and I vaguely recalled his keeping statistics on the Milwaukee Braves team, the way he systematically collected information on anything that interested him. He said he had gone to baseball games with his buddies, taken there by one of the boys’ father, that Hank Aaron had been his hero, and one of his classmates

Babe Ruth

from those years had written “Me & Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-five Years Later.” He continued reminiscing, telling me that in 1973, when Hank Aaron was baseball’s greatest hitter and coming near to surpassing Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs (even I had heard of Babe Ruth) Aaron and his family received death threats and an enormous amount of hate mail. Many Whites refused to accept a Black man surpassing the long-standing record of their beloved White player. Aaron was a generation later than Robinson and the racism in sports had continued. I decided to reconsider and write my thoughts on 42.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, track star

I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of the movie  “… 42 is competent, occasionally rousing and historically respectful — but it rarely rises above standard, old-fashioned biography fare. It’s a mostly unexceptional film about an exceptional man. …  and that is fine with me. It is still very much worth watching for what it teaches us about the history of racism in America. The exceptional man is Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in the all-White national leagues. In the leagues, each player has a number stitched onto his uniform shirt and 42 was Robinson’s number,  the number since …  universally retired because he broke baseball’s shameful color barrier. For this reason alone,42 is a valuable film — a long overdue, serious big-screen biopic about one of the most important American pioneers of the 20th century. …”

A true baseball fan might wish to see the 1950 film, The Jackie Robinson Story in which Robinson plays himself. Richard Brody considers it superior in many regards to 42. Whatever its quality, the man and baseball are important enough that the movie is easily available on YouTube as a documentary. I watched Moneyball, with Brad Pitt, on the transformation of baseball into a profitable business. It is highly informative and a good movie, too, but not my thing. The one sports movie I actually cared about is A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna, based on the All-American Girls Baseball League that became popular with sports fans while the men were away fighting in World War II.

I discovered, through all the reading I’ve been doing, that baseball is an American game, thoroughly American. It evolved in the northern states of the country, especially in New York, from older bat-and-ball games already being played in England by the mid-18th century. It evolved in the American style of the players organizing into clubs that set rules of the game, then into larger associations that improved the rules, managed relations between the clubs, and having found audiences, into businesses with players as employees. In 1871 the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was founded. Five years later, the National League was created, followed by the American League in 1901. The first World Series between the champions of the two major leagues was held in 1903, and by 1905 it became an annual event. In the 20th century the rules of the game were standardized.

The American Dilemma – White people believing that all men are born equal while still being prejudiced against, and accepting social injustice toward, African American men – became part of baseball’s evolution. (This was in the northern states. In the South, both tradition and law dictated that all White Americans were superior to all Black Americans.) Participation in White organized baseball by African Americans had been precluded since the 1890s by formal and informal agreements, with only a few players surreptitiously being included in lineups on a sporadic basis. The major leagues had a color barrier that lasted until 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his debut, the theme of 42.

In the mid-I800s African American baseball players had their own leagues throughout the country, mostly in the northeast and Midwestern states, apart from the all-White Majors. By the late 1800s a few Black men played on integrated teams or on Black teams that com­peted in integrated leagues, but by the 20th century segregation was almost absolute. I encourage you to watch this marvelous, funny film of The Clowns entertaining the crowd before the game began. They were great athletes as well as popular entertainers and twice won the league’s Eastern Division title.

Watching 42 and being continually upset by the rude, nasty treatment Jackie Robinson, his wife and Black sports writer Wendell Smith received in dealing with White people in ordinary life situations, by the all-White team’s personal rejection of Robinson and the injustice perpetuated against him during the games – I cannot revisit the movie. Instead, I quote this from Steven Jonas: “As is well known, Robinson was chosen by the Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey as much for his potential to be able to stand up — in total silence — to the racism that Rickey knew would be hurled at him in that first year, as for his intelligence and his projected baseball ability. The movie shows: the racist taunts from the stands that greeted Robinson in every ball park he played in (including in the beginning, the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field); the whole team being thrown off a plane in the South by a reservationist because Jackie’s wife, Rachel Robinson, had the nerve to use the “white” rest-room at the terminal; Enos Slaughter’s intentional spiking of Robinson in a play at first base; Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, standing in front of his team’s dugout hurling racist slander at Robinson when he was at bat; Dixie Walker of the Dodgers, who started a petition trying to get other players to boycott the game whenever Robinson played (the petition got nowhere and Walker, who happened to be a fine outfielder, was traded away by Rickey the following year); Fritz Ostermueller, a pitcher for the Dodgers who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates during that first season by Rickey in part because of his racist attitude towards Robinson, and then as a Pirate went on to bean Robinson long before any baseball players wore helmets.” And that’s far from all of the nastiness shown.

Here for an intelligent comment by Dave Zirin on the film and on Jackie Robinson as a civil rights leader.

The photograph is of Jackie Robinson with civil rights leaders Thurgood Marshall, Justice of the Supreme Court, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Rachel Robinson, a strong ally for her husband, went on, after his untimely death, into a distinguished career in health care, begun with a UCLA bachelor’s degree in nursing before they married, followed later by further degrees and high positions held, as well as establishing a business and using the proceeds to further children’s education. Her accomplishments and the honors she received are many and varied.

What has changed since the White response in 1973 to Hank Aaron’s outstanding performance? For this I turned to the National Football League because American football has replaced baseball as the nation’s favorite team sport. In the NFL some 70% of the players are Black, but it has only eight minority men in the key role of head coach, and that thanks in part of a diversity mandate called the Rooney Rule. Among the thirty-two NFL teams, thirty are owned by White men, two by men of color. None of the team owners are Black.

Consider this fascinating psychological analysis from the Scientific American of the widespread anger and coverage in newspapers over the action taken by one Black player who in 2016 bent down on one knee at the beginning of the game during the national anthem ritual to silently, peacefully protest the frequent acts of violence against Black men taken by police officers across the country.  “It matters that most of the athletes are Black and much of the audience is White, that the ancestors of one group were brought here as slaves and the ancestors of the other were their owners. That’s why, when Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room as the anthem played, one Pennsylvania police chief called their coach a “no good n*****” on Facebook, amplifying the racial themes of the debate. That’s why Michigan’s police director called them “degenerates.” (n***** means nigger for a Black person, a word so hateful that people should not say it.)

From the New Yorker — A year later, in a game in London, twenty-seven players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens dropped down and took a knee on the field as “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to swell. According to the Guardian, “there did not appear to be any White players taking a knee.” Standing above the downturned heads of the kneelers, a number of players and coaches interlocked arms. Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jaguars, who donated a million dollars to President Trump’s Inauguration, threaded himself between the tight end Marcedes Lewis and the linebacker Telvin Smith, both of whom are Black. “Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms—race, faith, our views, and our goals,” Khan said later in a statement. The sports commentator Art Stapleton tweeted that the image of Khan among his men was “powerful.”

Trump openly bullied the Black players who joined the protest by taking the knee, called on the National Football League owners to fire them and encouraged fans to walk out. His language was unbelievably crude, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!” Furthermore, as if the athletes were our modern gladiators, he claimed that new NFL safety rules meant to protect players are ruining the game, and this despite research indicating that NFL players are at high risk for concussions and for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),

Enough on sports teams and political implications. Clearly, integrating Black athletes into professional sports is a positive change in our social order but I have no idea of its overall meaning, other than providing better jobs for talented athletes. Despite important advances having been made in civil rights our communities remain racially segregated and still far from equal in income, wealth or status. As for the Invictus story, it is heartwarming and Mandela did pacify the Afrikaners, bringing them into the government while holding his coalition together, but I doubt that the rugby team’s activities really changed for very long the way Afrikaners and Bantu felt, still feel and act toward one together.

A note – I have a second personal connection with baseball.

I remember my grandfather in the 1930s and ‘40s listening to baseball games on the radio, knowing all the teams, all the players and all the game statistics. When twelve years old I lived in Canonsburg, the town where I was born, and twice an older man, on seeing me, recalled Granddad and told me he had been a great baseball player in the town’s team. (Do towns still have their own sports team? I know of none.) The story was that the Pittsburg Pirates had recruited Granddad but Grandmother said that if he became a professional player she would not marry him, so he stopped playing baseball altogether. The photograph is from a 1918 newspaper. Granddad is in the second row, second from the left.





After posting my thoughts and observations on Invictus I could not stop thinking about South Africa and all I had read of its history. Then my son, Arun, called and we fell into a long conversation on Mandela and the three blog posts he had written. In the first post he wrote of himself in 1974 (my boy grown tall, towering over me).

Nelson Mandela 2008

“… I first heard about Mandela in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. …”

In his second blog post on Mandela, he wrote of a documentary film, Plot for Peace, that “… tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end. …” Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website   …     ”

His third Mandela blog post is on a biopic, Mandela, a Long Walk to Freedom,which he considered “ … acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. …” He liked the review by Uris Avnery, as did I.

During our back and forth on South Africa I told Arun that reading about the Afrikaners had me thinking about “nationalists.” It bothers me that our President calls himself a nationalist. The American alt-right political groups call themselves nationalists when in fact they are White Nationalists, racists protecting their White privilege within our racially and ethnically diverse American nation, citizens committed to the Constitution. The Afrikaners who devised and enforced apartheid were 19th century nationalists. They believed then, and probably still believe, that the world’s people are naturally divided into nations, each nation being people who share a language, a culture, a history, physical traits, and excluding all other peoples, own a territory in which they self-govern. i.e. the nation-state. (It’s an up-graded form of tribalism.)

Routes of the largest trekking parties during the first wave of the Great Trek (1835-1840) along with key battles and events

When the Dutch, the future Afrikaners, arrived in present-day Cape Town in the 17th century, they saw the land as empty, as theirs for the taking, to farm with slaves brought in from S.E. Asia. When the Cape came under British rule in the 19th century and slavery was outlawed, up to 14,000 Afrikaners choose to make a Great Trek north, a difficult movement of families in covered wagons that ended in Natal with settling on land taken in war with the Ndebele and from the Zulu. An Afrikaner religious holiday celebrates the 1838 Trekkers victory over the Zulu.

Beginning in 1886, farming ceased being the country’s main industry. Diamonds had been discovered near Kimberly and the world’s largest gold rush ever began, the Witwatersrand gold rush, followed by the mining of minerals, of coal and iron ore, all of which created jobs for a very large number of both White and Black workers. It meant the growth of cities and urbanization of the Bantu people, of their taking on a South African identity beyond their tribal identities.

In 1934, the country became a dominion within the British Empire. In 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated government instituted apartheid, the enforced separation of races, using all means of persuasion and violence to convince the Black majority that they were separate nations and must reside in, become citizens of, several self-governing territories, the Bantustans. In cities, residential segregation was strictly enforced, with Africans living in “townships.” The British remained separate from Afrikaners but were accepted within the ruling affluent White upper caste. In 1961 the country became the Republic of South Africa. In 1994, Mandela was elected President and apartheid ended.

I liked the way Arun ended his first blog post on Mandela. He wrote that the level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime, that the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it, and quoting from an expert on South Africa’s apartheid, he continued with —  “An organized group of Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, were hostile to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. They were heavily armed and ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. However, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.”

Cry Freedom gives an authentic picture of life under apartheid during the late 1970s – of the Afrikaners’ pride in their history, of the British White subculture, of how apartheid affected the lives of both Blacks and Whites who protested, of police violence and the people’s suffering. We see Kevin Klein as Donald Woods, British South African family man in his forties, Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper critical of the South African government, and Denzel Washington as Steve Biko, Xhosa, a charismatic anti-apartheid activist, tall, handsome, fearless, brilliant, unusually gifted, a writer and highly effective speaker. The Director is Richard Attenborough.

Roger Ebert reviewed the movie in 1987 and complained, as did other reviewers, that the movie promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but focuses instead on White people. “ ,,, Whites occupy the foreground and establish the terms of the discussion, while the 80 percent non-white majority remains a shadowy, half-seen presence in the background. Yet “Cry Freedom” is a sincere and valuable movie, and despite my fundamental reservations about it, I think it probably should be seen. – and — Although everybody has heard about apartheid and South Africa remains a favorite subject of campus protest, few people have an accurate mental picture of what the country actually looks and feels like. It is an issue, not a place, and “Cry Freedom” helps to visualize it. …”

Here for a detailed account of the movie’s plot. Additionally, excellent background information is provided on Biko uniting Black community organizations, student groups and unions under the Black People’s Convention, and his social work approach to resisting apartheid. It is noted that the reviewers praised the acting and the crowd scenes but considered the movie, negatively, as a White man’s story. Some discussed it as a White Savior film, but I would not include Cry Freedom in that genre. The movie is, after all, based on a book written by a White South African journalist on how the apartheid government acted against him and his family as well as against Steve Biko. Woods the journalist is naturally in scenes that show the Afrikaner political framework, political personnel and policy, that present Afrikaner history and Afrikaner mindset, but most of the movie is about Woods and Biko, two men of equal stature from opposite sides of the society becoming friends, both influenced and aided by the Catholic Church. (Bishop Desmond Tutu at that time was a priest in the Anglican Church based in the independent states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, formerly British Protectorates.) Biko and Woods are shown working against apartheid while each is under house arrest, each banned from meeting with more than one person at a time, each being guarded and spied upon by government agents to prevent him from writing, from publishing anything he had already written. The police murdered Biko and were arranging prison or worse for Woods.

Unfortunately, the movie’s ending, while based on what actually happened, is over-long, gets lost in the complexities of South Africa’s unusual governmental structure, and is all about Woods. He and family had to escape from South Africa but a more fitting denouement for the story could have been devised.

Invictus had me puzzling over the nature of South African society and its history, over Afrikaner nationalism, the current rise of nationalism and White nationalism. Cry Freedom touches on another issue that has become part of life today in the U.S. – a serious concern for freedom of the press and the future of our democracy. It was the press getting information about South Africa out to the world that finally brought apartheid to an end. While watching the movie I wished for more emphasis on the role a free press played in fighting an authoritarian police state, in rallying moral outrage internationally to bring down apartheid and pave the way for Mandela to become President of a democratic government.

Regarding Steve Biko and the importance in his life of a steady flow of information from the outside world — South Africa today has one of Africa’s worst school systems. Under apartheid schools for Black children were few, nearly non-existent, but Biko was fortunate. He attended the Church of Scotland’s Lovedale education and training institute in Eastern Cape Province, Xhosa homeland and near East London. He continued on to study medicine at the University of Natal and there joined the National Union of South African Students, an organization dominated by well-intentioned White liberals who were polite with their few Black members but, as Biko realized, could never understand the experience and needs of the Black majority. He left the organization and became a leader in the Black Africans Students’ Organization, (“Black”meaning Bantu, Coloured and Indian) whose official ideology was Black Consciousness, known to South African students from the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois, an American scholar.

By the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation.

Biko read widely and was influenced, as were many revolutionaries, by Frantz Fanon, the famous physician, psychologist and philosopher from Martinique who lived and worked in France. (Ravi and I were familiar with one of Fanon’s many books, his 1961 The Wretched of the Earth.) In the movie, Biko is shown in a trial setting using the words “Black” and “White” to designate South Africans of non-European and/or European descent, and states that Black is Beautiful, a phrase from the African-American Black Power movement, which he obviously had been following, all without any indication in the movie that he was knowledgeable about what was happening in race relations across the world.

Biko is known as leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, so I tried writing its meaning in a brief statement, in a sentence or two, but found the ideas it encompasses too complex for that. Biko’s Black Consciousness did entail, though, the Bantu people and other non-Whites in South Africa taking pride in their own identities, feeling equal to the Whites, taking charge of themselves and their communities and letting the White society and government know they planned to peacefully bring about change. Most Afrikaners and some British saw it as a threat to their way of life.

Part of the Biko-Woods friendship evolved from their sharing and discussing the philosophies that underlay their opposition to apartheid. For example, from an obituary of Wendy Woods, one very much worth reading, “ … Wendy went to visit Biko during one of his terms in prison – this time for “defeating the ends of justice”. On being told that “whites never visit blacks in jail”, she demanded to see the commandant. Biko was brought in, angry and withdrawn. His face lit up on seeing Wendy, but with the jailers in the room he adopted his usual stony approach of drawing a veil between himself and his interrogators. Wendy handed him George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and left.”

Biko’s coffin featured the motif of a clenched black fist. Many in the Black Consciousness Movement used this fist as a symbol.

Steve Biko. Stained glass window by Daan Wildschut in the Saint Anna Church, Heerlen (the Netherlands), ca. 1976. One of 12 modern saints and martyrs.

A trailer for Cry Freedom has the Woods-Biko friendship as the movie’s theme. I think about how the story could have been structured with freedom of the press and democracy as its theme. In the movie, Wendy questions her husband about writing a book on Biko, and I cannot remember his response. I can, though, think of what it should have been. I am struck by the religious nature of both the men, both affiliated with a church and each grounded in humanitarian concerns. The ANC was political, a fight for Blacks to participate in government; the Black Consciousness Movement insisted on the equality and the equal rights of all persons, no matter what their race or ethnicity, and that this be recognized and officially accepted. Equality and equal rights are the very basis of a democratic government. Biko led a moral crusade and was made known to a world-wide public through Woods’ writing and international advocacy. For Black South Africans, Biko died as a saint.

Perhaps the press as an instrument for democracy in this setting would be difficult to write into the movie’s action and dialogue, but a knowledgeable and skillful screenwriter could do it. In Marshall, the screenwriters, Michael Koskoff, a lawyer, and his son Jacob, a professional screenwriter, dramatized the action and dialogue of that movie in such a way that I learned from it as well as being entertained.



Nelson Mandela 2008

Recently, while browsing through movie reviews, I discovered Invictusmade when Obama was in office, and decided I must see it, just to take my mind off our current egotistical, demented President and our painfully, increasingly divisive politics. I needed the comfort of watching a noble President actively bringing factions of his divided society together, beginning the formation of a united nation. And the movie worked for me. Watching it changed my mood, at least for a while. Nelson Mandela was such a wonderful human being and the incidents in the story actually happened. For me Invictus is a feel-good movie.

Robert Ebert called Invictus a very good movie, a great entertainment. Do read his review. It is Ebert at his best. He gives Clint Eastwood high praise as a Director, considers Morgan Freeman splendid as Mandela and Matt Damon effective as the rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar, who is Afrikaner, the son of an ordinary racist family, totally loyal to his team of White men with their one Black player, Chester Williams, while still considering Mandela “the greatest man I’ve ever met.” The rugby team and the rugby matches become a metaphor for the important principle underlying a truly critical institution of that era, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like restorative justice body that Mandela was instrumental in assembling after Apartheid ended – but more of that below. Significant, too, were scenes showing how the security guards covering Mandela, a unit of tough Afrikaner cops and hard-line activists from Mandela’s ANC, learned to work together.

The background given in the movie for understanding the plot is fairly minimal. Filming began in March 2009 in Cape Town. We see city scenes, poverty-ridden rural townships and the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The game was filmed where the actual game was played, in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. In one sequence, we watch Pienaar and the team visiting the prison on Robben Island where Mandela was kept for 18 years in an 8-foot by 7-foot concrete cell with little more in it than the straw mat he slept on. He had been arrested and imprisoned for life in 1963, at age 45, held in that cell, isolated, controlled, alone except for prison guards and other prisoners, then shifted to other prisons for an additional 9 years and released on Feb. 2, 1990, at age 72.

And what was Mandela’s crime? He was a leader in the ANC, the African National Congress, an organization peacefully protesting Apartheid, the Afrikaner government’s elaborate and extreme system of racial segregation and White supremacy begun in 1948 and continued into the early 1990s. A South African friend of British background and approving of Mandela still felt he had to point out to me that the ANC had committed acts of violence. In 1960, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, after being banned from South Africa, the ANC had organized a militant arm, the uMkhonto we Sizwe, the MK. Its mission was to actively fight the government’s violence against Black Africans. An account of Mandela’s role in the MK and the bombings is here. Politically significant, as well, for government officials jailing Mandela may have been that although he was not a communist he had worked with the Communist party in certain protest activities. At the Rivonia trial held for him and his fellow activists in 1962, he stated, at length, his political philosophy, basically the same as that under which he later governed.

Watching the movie, I knew little about South Africa other than what I had learned from my first conversation with Ravi (noted here in an earlier essay). It was on Satyagraha, nonviolent protest, developed by Mahatma Gandhi and used in 1906 to protest the then British colony of Transvaal compelling Indians and Chinese to register with the government. (Mandela adopted Gandhi’s non-violent protest.) During the years when Ravi and I were living abroad and traveling extensively, we never considered visiting the Union of South Africa; under Apartheid, mixed marriages like ours were illegal.

To understand what Mandela had accomplished I wanted to know more about South Africa so I first, as is my way, turned to discovering the country’s ethnic groups, their histories plus the relationships between them, and after that looked for basic information on what South Africa is like today. It has been fascinating. The nation is unique in the way multiple and very different ethnicities came together within historic times to become the Republic of South Africa.


The San

Of course, the San, hunter-gatherers, were the indigenous people, the first human inhabitants ever of South Africa, eventually to be pushed into remote areas, such as northern Botswana, by peoples at the end point of a southward movement from Central Africa, from in or near today’s Nigeria, begun in about 1000 B.C.E. The first of these migrating peoples to arrive in the present South Africa, in about 1000 C.E, were the Khoikhoi, hunter-gatherers related linguistically to the San but also keeping cattle, sheep and goats.

By the 1500s pastoral farmers were established on the land. They were tribes speaking a Bantu language, with an Iron Age technology for tools and weapons, the women growing millet and sorghum, the men keeping herds of cattle. They are the dominant ethnics today, of whom the Xhosa and Zulu are most familiar to an outsider like me. (Mandela is Xhosa.)

The Dutch and Khoikhoi meet

The first migration in of Whites, the Boers, European farmers, encouraged by the Cape Town based Dutch East India Company, began in 1652. The British farmers came in 1820. Other recognized ethnics are the Cape Coloured (mixed White-African-Malay), the Cape Malays and the Indian South Africans.

The World Bank classifies South Africa as having an upper-middle-income economy and being a newly industrialized country, the only such country in Africa. However, poverty and inequality remain widespread, with high unemployment. Blacks are now 80% of the population and the Whites, concentrated in the cities’ higher income areas, about 10%, maybe fewer. Over 65% of the people live in the modern cities, with poor people on their outskirts still lacking a sewage system, clean water, electricity, access to health clinics. Nevertheless, there are schools. The adult literacy rate is 95%. Another statistic I use for insight into a country’s modernization or general well-being is its total fertility rate, broadly the number of children the average woman will have. In most developed countries, the number is under 2. For most countries in Africa, the numbers are high, dangerously high for economic development and quality of life in general.  In 2017, in South Africa it was 2.29, still high for a country of that development level. It would be lower if the country’s wealth were more equally shared among its citizens, but at least it is approaching the number of children per woman in developed countries.

I tried summarizing more of what I learned about South African society, reading and reflecting to understand how and why it holds together, but found the writing too time-consuming and the essay that would result too lengthy for a blog post. I can only state in conclusion that Invictus is well-done, enjoyable and presents a fair view of South Africa for the time in which the story is set.


The Eagle Huntress is both a documentary and the thoroughly engaging story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from western Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter to compete in the eagle festival at Ulgii, capital city of the province. Because the story telling is so strong, I had to check, and yes, the girl Aisholpan, the father, Nurgaiv, and everyone in the documentary are persons from the family and the community who were filmed in real situations. They are not actors, there are no sets.

Here for a trailer.

And the dramatic landscape is a character in the story, marvelously photographed in a manner possible only with the latest technology. Do watch this video and discussion of the filming. The camera work is extraordinary. Nibblett and his small team had a special crane, cameras on a drone, even a camera on an eagle’s head, all working in difficult situations and extreme cold.

Each scene photographed had to be the only take. Aisholpan and Nurgaiv reenacted for the camera the way she acquired her eagle. We watch them climbing mountain paths to the peaks where eagles nest, him tying a rope around her waist to secure her as she slowly, carefully finds footing to get down the ragged rock mountain side to the nest they have located. Once in the nest, she plays an eaglet and manages to wrap it in the blanket Nurgaiv lowers on another rope and will pull up to him, all while a huge mother bird is circling above them. Somehow Aisholpan works her way back to the perch where her father awaits her. It had me feeling like an anxious, scared mother.

This review has photos and from A.O. Scott  “… In form and content this is a movie that expands your sense of what is possible. …”

The review from BBC has good information on how the filming was done.

Kazak horseman

For example, the Director, Otto Bell, to make a basic point on the theme of Aisholpan’s challenge,


did not have to stage the scenes of elderly men grumpily disapproving of a woman eagle hunter breaking into a male domain. He had gone to visit the elders in their homes, his camera with him, and they all readily, unprompted, told him what they thought; he simply filmed and they became part of the story. We see Aisholpan’s grandfather relenting, then welcoming her into the sport. Bell and his team captured, wonderfully, Aisholpan’s 2014 competition win on camera, as well as when she was greeted by loud cheers after competing, and winning, again in 2015 and 2016.

Drawing on my background in anthropology, I wrote, here, on male and female roles throughout human history and why these roles are changing – the first of several such blog posts. I quoted Simone de Beauvoir in her 1951 book. She asks “What is woman?” and argues that man is considered the default, while woman is considered The Other.  “… Thus humanity is male and man defines woman as not herself but as relative to him,” and throughout history the average woman had no choice but to live with it because from first menstruation until menopause she could expect to be continually either pregnant or lactating, always caring for a child.

In 1960, however, The Pill came onto the American market, a new technology, a reliable, convenient, safe, discreet and affordable contraceptive that made possible profound changes in society and culture. For the first time ever a woman in a normal life arrangement could easily and dependably decide if and when she became pregnant, and it was the beginning of a slowly growing revolutionary force, one that has made possible the current scene of young women competing in athletic events that until very recently were male only.

I find Aisholpan’s relationship with her father especially interesting. He recognized that his daughter had the talent and the drive to excel in activities that once were taught from father to son, a set of skills and knowledge a man in a life based on herding sheep and goats, with camels for transport, must have for him to feed his family and provide the furs his women used to make the clothing essential for survival in that climate. We see in the film that Kazak lifestyle has changed fundamentally but their eagle hunting contains within it intrinsic values worth perpetuating as a popular sport, and Nurgaiv decided his daughter could be a star athlete in that sport.

The story of Ashopan and Nurgaiv reminded me of a friend in my 1958-60 study of Mexican-American migrant farmworkers. They were a community up from the Texas border, employed in large Wisconsin farms, then moving into the city where jobs were available for the men. It was for my M.A. thesis on changing family roles with urbanization, done while Ravi taught in a local college and our two children were still pre-school age. I became involved with a number of women, became a part of their lives, as they did of mine, and at this point especially remember one of them, a wife and mother traditional in all respects except for her husband being the one Mexican-American man active in his labor union, which she supported. She obviously understood better than other women the dominant Anglo-American culture they had moved into and when I asked her how this happened, she said it was because she had been her father’s favorite child. He had taken her everywhere with him while doing chores, visiting family or friends, even at work, never replacing her with a younger brother. (I noted that many of my friends did not like doing things alone, taking a child along if no adult company were available.) She became an unusually independent, self-assured, cheerful adult, fun to be with, still fulfilling her traditional roles while able to communicate well with Anglos. She was a natural leader both women and men liked and respected. As with Aisholpan, she remained loyal to family and community while expanding the definition of what a woman can be in modern society.

The film, Girl Rising, is a video on how to make the future better for everyone.

How about this New Yorker magazine cover celebrating the American Father’s day? When young, I knew men who complained about not having sons to share activities with, as if a daughter could do nothing other than play with her dolls. As for the concern about having sons to pass on the family name, I no longer hear it. Now the concern seems to be with ancestry and analyzing DNA, which comes equally from both sides of the family.

A few film critics assert that Aisholpan is simply repeating feminist rhetoric when she says “Girls can do anything if they try,” although she said the same thing off-screen: “I am happy that I have won a man’s competition. It shows how strong women are.”

Again, I think back to my own experience in a traditional society/culture newly touched by the forces of modernization. Here, from an essay I call Surviving the Patriarch, the Traditional Family and Women’s Work, I recall a thirteen year old girl in Aktepe, the town where my colleague, Hasan, and I were doing a study, 1970-72, of rural-urban migration in central Turkey. Aisha was lively and talkative, graceful, with a pretty face and her hair an unruly mop of dark brown curls. She liked to tell me about what she was learning at school and how she initiated serious arguments in class. One afternoon Hasan and I returned to the house to find her, still in school uniform, telling her sisters and little brother about a classroom debate on who is better, boys or girls.

From Hasan’s translation: “The boys are just awful. And I said so! Everyone knows that girls in the class are just as smart as the boys. And I told those boys what ladies do in life is more important than what men do. I said it right in front of the teacher and he didn’t say anything!”

I talked with Aisha’s mother, tried to persuade the family that the girl should go on to high school, but the father, who loved his daughters and was proud of this one, believed that women have one place in this world and men have another, a place that makes them superior and dominant. A number of families wanted Aisha as a daughter-in-law, with the added advantage of kinship ties this would create for both families. Her father decided she would be married while still in her teens. Unlike Aisholpan, the time for a girl like Aisha had not yet arrived in her traditional rural community.

How fortunate to have the story of Aisholpan filmed. Let us hope she goes on to achieve her goal in life – to study medicine, become a doctor and serve her community well.



Through the years, living and working in various countries, I acquired an odd assortment of items, things prized for no reason other than their having caught my imagination, been affordable and small enough to carry away with me. My house is full of them and they need to be catalogued so my children will know what they are and why they are here. (I’ve already described and pictured the ani-ani, here, an agricultural tool relevant to my work in Indonesia.)

I begin with my Acheulian Handaxe (or Biface), found in a Paris antique shop. As I wrote in an earlier essay, in the early 1980s I lived on the Place du Pantheon and did my daily shopping on rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest shopping streets in Europe.

To reach La Mouff I walked on rue Clotilde, along the side our apartment building, turned left onto rue de L’Estrapade and rue Blain to the Place de La Contrascarpe at rue Mouffetard, each time passing by the antique shop, sometimes checking out the window display, a few times going in to look around, and one time finding something that caught my interest – a small basket at the back of the store, on the floor, filled with oddly shaped stone objects. I called the shop owner over and she explained that her son had brought these things home from an archeological project where he worked one summer. From my anthropology courses in the early 1950s and many hours spent in museums, I recognized the basket’s contents as stone age tools but had little more information than that for understanding exactly what they were. Since my field had been cultural anthropology, not archeology or physical anthropology, the study of human evolution, I had not kept up with that particular academic literature after leaving teaching and the academic life. Still, I searched through the basket and picked out my handaxe, 5½ in. by 4in., chosen because I found the shape and color pleasing and it fit into my hand like a tool I could imagine a man or woman having used many thousands of years ago.

On reflection, I picked up a second object, a heavy lithic core, I think of quartzite, something I knew of and remembered having seen pictured in anthropology textbooks. I guessed that razor sharp blades would have been struck off from the core, which is,

Upper Paleolithic cylindrical blade core. France, Burke Museum

roughly described, a cylinder shaped piece of worked stone, about 6 inches long by about 4 inches deep, and along its length an approximately flat surface of three parallel blade size indentations. On each end of the cylinder is a worked platform. The core looked to me as if it could no longer yield proper blades and had been abandoned, but it was the only core there and I liked the idea of owning it. (In an essay on the history of cloth and clothing I remarked on flint blades, and the pictured bone needles, technology from the Upper Paleolithic, being used in ancient Egypt for cutting, and sewing, cloth to make the first known dress.)

I paid the owner a hundred francs, put both oddities in my shopping cart, along with groceries from the rue Mouffetard shops, and on reaching home found a place on the upper shelf of a cupboard to store them. If I showed them to Ravi he soon forgot; he had more relevant matters on his mind.

Years later, in the early 1990s, when Ravi and I went driving through the French countryside on vacation, mostly in the Dordogne, we visited Le Musée National de Préhistoire in Eyzies-de-Tayac, and Lascaux II, an exact copy of the Lascaux caves, all of which reminded of my two prehistoric stone possessions and set me to wondering about their provenance.

The lithic core was relatively easy for me to place within its context.

Solutrean blades

Modern human beings, Homo Sapiens, came on the scene between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago as hunter-gatherers using stone tooles with a culture known in archeology as the Upper Paleolithic. The blades they struck off from the stone core was a basic, highly significant step forward in technology, as explained here. From their art, the cave paintings, carvings, ornaments and figurines, we assume the people were fully modern human beings with language, social order and religion.

And their tools were beautifully made, aesthetic beyond functional necessity. The Solutrean blades are especially lovely.  In an essay considering folk art and aesthetics, here,  are photos of a Lascaux cave painting and of the early native American’s Clovis point.

But what about the handaxe that I found so pleasing to look at and hold? Finally, in the museum of prehistory I was able to place it in time and in a tool tradition. The time is some 150,000 years ago and the tools are Lower Paleolithic, in the Acheulean tradition, the  Acheulean handaxe. And how or what should I call the individuals who made and used the Acheulean handaxe?

Homo Georgicus

They were premodern hominins, Homo Erectus, that preceded both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal in Europe and Asia. (and Denisovans?). The fossil evidence for Homo Erectus is scant and complex. To me, the best understanding of who or what these pre-modern beings were is best shown in this skull, skeletal reproduction, and reconstruction of a female. (Do I call her a woman, as if she were human?) They are called Homo Erectus because they stood and walked erect, upright. Did the Acheuleans have language? We know they used fire and may have cooked their food, but no clear, uncontroversial evidence of cultural traits, such as art, ornaments, clothing or habitation has been found. Even tools other than the handaxe are missing, and because one cannot know for certain just how a “handaxe” was used, many archeologists now refer to it as a “biface”, a term that does not imply its function. In fact, the Acheulean handaxe may well be a lithic core from which hominins struck off flakes that, with their sharp edges, were the real stone tools Homo Erectus used for cutting meat, vegetation, wood.

I discovered an article, marvelous both in content and writing style, by Tony Baker, a highly knowledgeable amateur archeologist specialized in Paleoamerican stone tools, in which he presents an argument I’ll draw upon in my simple layman’s vocabulary for discussion of the handaxe. I highly recommend that you read Baker’s artlcle.

He writes that most archeologists have long considered the Acheulean handaxe, because of its size and symmetry, an intentionally manufactured tool, and this despite the fact that problems arise when studying variations in size and shape of the many handaxes found across Europe and Asia, variations that seem unrelated to function, to changes through time or to locations where the hominins would have camped. Alternatively, a smaller group of researchers hold that the handaxe is a flake core, the by-product of flake extraction, rather than intentionally a tool. Baker, who had studied bifaces from the Solutrean and other stone age tool traditions and worked, as well, with an experienced knapper, agrees with this latter view.

He considers the unchanging morphology of the handaxe a consequence of it being a core and as the natural outcome of the limited physical capabilities, especially limited manual dexterity, of Homo Erectus in striking flakes from it. The Achuelean handaxe is a crude, early stage biface found at the sources of the lithic material near what would have been water and gravel, i.e. fluvial deposits, and not scattered over the land where the hominins would have had their campsites.  Baker dates the handaxe from between 1,600,000 and 150,000 years ago.

This and much more I learned from reading Tony Baker’s ingenious investigation into the nature of the handaxe and its history. I look at my handaxe/biface, contemplate the scars left from flakes extracted, none as large as those in this drawing, and wonder about the beings who made and used the flakes, the first deliberately crafted tool I know of. I suspect my handaxe/biface, like my Upper Paleolithic core, had reached its inherent limit for producing useful flakes. (When I get photos of my two lithic cores, I’ll add them to the post.)

But I must add a sad note – From reading his blog post, I had taken a great liking to Tony Baker and looked forward to expressing to him my admiration of his intelligence and wit, only to discover that he died in 2012. Obituaries from friends and colleagues confirm my high regard for him and his work.

I’ve had trouble writing about Kedi. It tells a story about two things from my past, cats and Istanbul, that resonate with me. Thoughts and memories from decades and decades ago come flooding back, more than I can easily manage. Also, there’s another complication. I now live surrounded by trees and greenery, which is lovely but I’m a city person at heart. I miss living in a neighborhood like that in Kedi, in a city, on a street, in an apartment from where one can walk about, people watch, go into shops and chat up those who work there, admire or deplore the local architecture, discover the city’s history.

As a child in the 1930s I lived in various houses on the outskirts of towns, near wooded areas and always had cats and kittens around to play with. They were just there, not pets anyone brought into the house or regularly fed, but friendly enough for a child to pick up and cuddle. I read that in American cities today feral cats are part of an urban wild life the municipal government must monitor and control. Ornithologists warn that cats are a threat to the birds. Humane Society activists, using the term “community cats” instead of feral, and citing cat control of mouse and rat infestation, advocate for cat population control through kittens being taken to an animal shelter for adoption and adult cats being trapped, neutered, vaccinated for rabies and returned to the street. It’s all too complicated for me to think about as I fret over the deer, rabbits, moles and voles that take over my garden and eat the flowering plants. Raccoons, squirrels, foxes and snakes are out there, too. The birds and butterflies are a joy.

The film has me recalling the cats that on occasion wandered into my life, to keep me company for a while. It happened twice in our house in Mogadiscio and once in Jakarta where for two weeks I sat all day in a room near a guest house kitchen writing a long, detailed report, accompanied by the cat that sat patiently on the table among my stacks of note pads and documents, reminding me every hour or so to pay attention and pet her. I did not encounter street cats in any of the American cities where I lived. I have no memories of cats in India, just of dogs barking at night. In Paris, I once saw a woman feeding cats in a small wooded area of the 16th arrondissement. Otherwise no street cats. In Ankara we lived in Kavaklidere, a neighborhood of apartment buildings and a shopping street that replaced vineyards or gardens, too new to have an urban history, let alone a history of cats. Photos of Kavaklidere here

For the film’s Istanbul neighborhood and the street cats that decorate it, quoting from an introduction to the persons who made Kedi, plus photos of the cats and a nice YouTube trailer to watch —  “Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.”   

Kedi premiered at an Istanbul Film Festival in 2016, arrived the following year in North American theaters and on the YouTube Red streaming service. Time magazine listed it as one of its top ten films of 2017.  From the review, “Ode to the Street Cat — ”… Kedi, which means “cat” in Turkish, is a loving, gorgeously filmed documentary.”

Sheila O’Malley has written a wonderful essay on the film. She describes the individual personality of each of the film’s cats and how it relates to each person it has chosen to favor. “The focus is on the cats, but Kedi is really a portrait of community. (The Director) gives a sense of life in Istanbul, its diversity and beauty, its storefronts and waterfronts, its people.”

This review expresses my thoughts on why I delight in all things feline and one reason I so enjoyed Kedi.  —  “ … Kedi is the “Citizen Kane” of the (cat films). Though technically a sophisticated, artful documentary from Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, Kedi will automatically find devout fans among anyone who delights at all things feline. …  Kedi is ultimately a movie about a mystery. It’s impossible to fully explain how cats and people truly connect, considering their lack of a shared language.  (I wrote here about my favorite pet ever and how and why humans and cats communicate.) One interviewee argues that the relationship between cats and people is the closest we might get to understanding what it’s like to interact with aliens. If so, Kedi goes a long way towards making first contact. Then again, dog people may find themselves in the dark.”

From Kenneth Turan, Feb. 16, 2017, in The Los Angles Times — ” … one of “Kedi’s” virtues is the picture it provides of modern Istanbul, giving us a dawn-to-dusk tour of the metropolis and showing us neighborhoods that feel very much like the real, everyday Istanbul, not the tourist mecca we usually see. …”

I love Istanbul and must remark on it. Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities, has innumerable beautiful things to see, and moreover, a long, complex history highly relevant to our contemporary world. Kedi brings the city to life in thoroughly charming and memorable ways and leads me irresistibly into remembering. My husband, Ravi, the kids and I lived in Ankara from 1968 to 1972 and in the 1980s I returned several times on consultancies for the rural health care system. I visited Istanbul as a tourist, as often as possible. Aziz, the boy who came into our family when we lived in Mogadiscio, was for four years a student in the American curriculum Roberts College and my granddaughter studied for a year in the Francophone Galatasaray U.

I wrote in an earlier post of my Istanbul memories, of Mimar Sinan, the great architect, and two of his mosques, but this time will focus on maps. Thinking about Istanbul has to begin with taking into account the city’s extraordinary location and its relation to the Mediterranean Sea that was, until recent centuries, the center of the western world.

Like the original city, Constantinople, Istanbul spans the Bosporus Strait, a narrow waterway linking

Swallow’s Nest in Crimea

the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea and finally to the Mediterranean. Look at this map of the Black Sea and consider the five Eastern European countries that border it, plus the European rivers, including the Danube, that flow into the sea and think of all the people from those landlocked countries who thereby gain access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus Strait, through Istanbul.

Additionally, the Bosporus is recognized as the border between Europe and Asia, making Istanbul/Constantinople both European and Asian.

Another waterway, the Golden Horn, a long estuary lined with deep and sheltered natural harbors, opening into the Bosporus, creates a peninsula where the great city was destined to develop, grow and change over the millennia. Constantinopolis was the capital city of the Roman/Byzantine Empire (330–1204 and 1261–1453), followed by a brief Latin (1204–1261) Empire (the Crusaders), and in the Ottoman(1453–1923) Empire became Istanbul.

On its peninsula side of the city there’s the Hagia Sophia, a church built in 537 AD, its dome an engineering marvel, and the Ottomans’ fabulous Topkapi complex,

The New Mosque at the Galata Bridge

the beautiful and beloved Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the New Mosque with the Spice Market at the Galata Bridge. (It must be noted that Constantinople was the western terminus of the Silk Road from Xi’an, China) The endlessly significant and interesting historical sites one should visit are too many to list, at least here. Parts of the very impressive city walls are still standing. (I wrote of my discovering the walls of Paris.)

The Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn, the Marmara on the horizon, a view from Beyoglu. The Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, overlooks the Bridge.

Across the Golden Horn, linked by the Galata Bridge to the Historic Peninsula, is Istanbul’s ancient residential city, the area known as Beyoglu, the Istanbul of the documentary and where a traveler is likely to stay. We stayed at Taksim Square in the Gezi Hotel, no longer there.

Arun, my son, was recently in Istanbul, stayed in the Cihangir mahalle/quartier (pronounced JEE-hahn-geer) and informs me that Kedi was filmed there. As he walked about he took a liking to the cats and photgraphed them. By Istanbul standards, Cihangir is fairly new. It remained a royal forest for hunting and recreation until the last half the 19th century, a time when Venetians, Genoese, Greeks, European Jews, Armenians, Christians from the eastern Mediterranean began moving in, a good many of them in engaged in commerce, welcomed by the Ottomans, living a European bourgeois lifestyle in European style apartment buildings that lined the narrow streets. With the onset of World War II and in its aftermath, many of these inhabitants left and working class people from Anatolian towns and villages moved in. As the area became unfashionable, perhaps somewhat unsafe, and rents were low, students and artists and intellectuals followed, such as the novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, but Cihangir has attractive residential architecture to be renovated, a view over the Bosphorus and access to the shore. It is gentrifying. The film shows a vibrant and diverse urbane quartier made richer and more humane by its feline residents.


I watched Wit nine years ago, decided to see it again and again found it excellent. Emma Thompson is totally engaging and believable as professor Vivian Bearing, a loner in her late forties, without family and seemingly friendless, a brilliant scholar, lover of language and words and the poetry of John Donne, demanding of herself and of her students. The excellent Mike Nichols directs.

The movie begins with Vivian sitting in the office of Oncologist Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) as he tells her in cold medical technical terminology that she has advanced stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. He describes the extent of her disease and enrolls her in his full dose, eight cycle chemotherapeutic protocol, with little mention of the pernicious side effects. Stunned but respectful of expertise, and maybe hopeful, she agrees to becoming a subject in what is an experimental treatment. He is both her physician and a clinical researcher set on making a significant, and publishable, contribution to medical science.

We next see Vivian in a hospital bed. (Thompson shaved her head to play the role.) Dr. Jason Posner, (Jonathan M. Woodward) is her main medical provider, a new M.D. in clinical oncology whose clinical skills as doctor are seriously lacking. Nevertheless, it happens that as an undergraduate student, to round out his educational experience, Jason had taken Vivian’s introductory course in 17th century literature and received an A- from her. This, and his real goal of doing research in a lab, discovering why cancer cells divide as they do, resonates with her.

The one role in the film I find problematic is that of Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N., the primary nurse for the cancer inpatient unit at the University Hospital. Audra McDonald is fine in the part, except she obviously is not a nurse. If she were she would have known how to convey an image of the nurse as both a sympathetic caretaker and a highly skilled, highly educated member of the medical team treating Vivian for cancer. And why is she Susie rather than Susan or Ms Monahan?  In this blog, The Truth About Nursing, nurses challenge the stereotypical view of nurses as relatively unskilled woman workers whose main function is to give personal care to someone who is sick, of nurses as simply the doctor’s helper. (One of my blog posts on the history of medicine is relevant here)

We meet characters in Vivian’s previous life through flashbacks with students and her classroom, with her English literature mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford, (Eileen Atkins), and with her father, played by Harold Pinter.

I recommend you read Derek F. Amanatullah’s “The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine“. I read it several times. He added in an Acknowledgement – “Thank you to Margaret Edson for writing Wit. It has been my pleasure to read this play as well as see it in the theater and on screen. As an aspiring medical scientist, I have had few works impact me so deeply and profoundly.”

Margaret Edson is a teacher well-schooled in literature and the theatre and wrote Wit as a play for those who love words and the meaning of love and life. Still, she had to have been influenced by her mother’s experience as a medical social worker and by her own brief time as unit clerk in the AIDS and cancer treatment wing of a research hospital. She observed well. Throughout the film we see hospital staff, parts of the hospital, medical students, and how the system functions.

From this comment on the play, seen in 2017 on stage – — “Margaret Edson’s ‘Wit’, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999, is the best play ever written about cancer. In fact, I’d say it’s the best play ever written about hospitals, too, and about the loss of control we all fear or feel, once we find ourselves down that rabbit hole, pushed, prodded and studied by others for whom we are, inevitably, a workplace assignment. …  For ourselves, of course, we’re just all we have ever known.”  The reviewer thinks hospital care has changed for the better since 1999.

Yes. Hospital care has changed somewhat, but the medical establishment’s thinking about treating the elderly and seriously ill with heroic measures, such as surgery and chemotherapy, with their often devastating side effects, has changed even more. I responded to Vivian accepting Susie’s advice on adopting a Do Not Resuscitate order. DNR means that in case a very sick/elderly patient’s heart stops, the usually ineffective cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) should be withheld. Vivian wants a natural death, to stop the treatments that are keeping her barely alive, miserable and in pain, and Susie become the sympathetic care taker she needs. Today, in the U.S., Hospice is available for someone like Vivian (given she stops being a research subject). It is a service covered under Medicare, the government medical insurance for the elderly, for people who are nearing the end of life and turn away from further curative medical care. It is care provided by a team of health care professionals who maximize comfort for the terminally ill person by reducing pain and addressing physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. To help the patient’s family, hospice also provides counseling, respite care and practical support. Unlike other medical care, the focus of hospice care isn’t to cure the underlying disease. The goal of hospice care is to support the highest quality of life possible for whatever time remains.

I have a DNR order in my will. I intend to avoid the sort of medical treatment that simply puts off the inevitable for a few months. I hope for a natural death with a good quality of life to the end, turning, if necessary, if sick and in pain from an incurable illness, to palliative care rather than curative care.

From the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitations, A creative exploration of the human experience of disability and healing – —  we have an article, “An analysis of the movie for teaching medical, and other, students” and (M. Edson, Personal Communication, March 13, 2015) Margaret Edson teiling its author :

“Wit is not a story of survival. Instead, the film deconstructs the typical tale of staying strong through cancer treatment, overcoming the odds, and surviving. The film skillfully constructs a story of repair and restoration of the individual not through treatment of the body ravaged by cancer, but by admitting one’s weaknesses, exposing oneself, and, perhaps most frightening of all, relinquishing control and, in the process, becoming vulnerable. In the end, one is left with the feeling that the main character of the play is being “healed, not cured.”