Winnie Mandela: Misconceived Biopic

What has happened to director Darrell James Roodt, who has shown some talent in previous outings (Cry, the beloved Country, Yesterday)? At first, the news that a South African filmmaker would tackle the biopic of Nelson Mandela’s wife, was welcome, based on the director’s roots and presumed historical knowledge.

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But, alas, “Winnie Mandela” is a misfire, a simplistic and shallow narrative defined by one-dimensional characters and lead stars that are either miscast and/or misdirected.

It may or may not be fair to claim that Jennifer Hudson, who deservedly won the Supporting Actress Oscar for the musical “Dreamgirls,” has not made a decent film in years. Recently, she has become a spokesperson for weight loss, and in the new film, she sure does flaunt her new, considerably reduced and more alluring figure with chic wardrobe.

But I doubt that any member of the Mandela family or his followers would like this picture, which is not even good enough as a standard TV telepic. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have taken a strong, complex and controversial figure, who crusaded to end apartheid with her husband Nelson Mandela, and have turned her into a cardboard heroine defined by deep-skin charm.

If you seek to understand why Winnie Mandela was labeled “the mother of the nation,” what made her tick, and how she became an iconic figure on her own right, you will have to wait for another film.

Terrence Howard as Mandela is equally unconvincing, a function of the script that makes this hero too earnest and prosaic, lacking the natural charisma that both the real historical figure and the actor who plays him have in abundance.

Main problem is the vague, rambling, and at time confusing script, co-written by Roodt and Andre Pieterse, based on Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob’s biography (which I have not read).

Firm and literate (she can recite Shakespeare) even as a young girl, Winnie (played as a girl by Unathi Kapela) shows feminist inclinations by claiming that women can do much more than domestic chores in the kitchen.

Hudson assumes the titular part, when Winnie goes to college in Johannesburg. Refusing the opportunity to work in the U.S., she opts instead to stay in South Africa to help her people. Winnie meets her soulmate, Nelson Mandela, while he is championing an African National Congress, a campaign that runs against the white ruling class. Each and every step of the couple is carefully being watched and monitored by the government.

Violent response to the essentially peaceful protests attracts the attention of the international press, and Mandela is arrested for treason and put on trial in 1963. In the courtroom, Winnie makes a splashy appearance with her dress, insisting on her right to choose her own wardrobe in private and in public.

When Mandela is sentenced to life imprisonment, Winnie continues his fight and her stubborn refusal to be intimidated sends her to jail. The solitary confinement has negative effects on her mental state of mind: She is seen talking to ants in her cell, an act that angers the prison guard so much that she crashes the insects under her boots.

Following release from prison, Winnie gets close to an extremist faction, and also gains a security detail in the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC). The film implies infidelity, which along with her extremist position, create tensions between her and Mandela, who is now moved from strict confinement to a Cape Town prison.

Roodt remains vague in his approach to the scandals and legal problems that tarnished Winnie’s reputation as an heroic figure. The text also is inconsistent in showing Nelson’s conduct, particularly regarding Winnie’s radical politics and the divorce following his release from jail.

Most of the white characters are narrwoly defined, especially Major DeVries (Elias Koteas), who is the cartoonish villain of the piece.
On the plus side, there is attention to period detail through Pierre Vienings costume design, though Winnie’s large collection of hats and dresses proves distracting in crucial dramatic moments, as in the courtroom or when she observes her burnt-out home.

Cast:

Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Elias Koteas, Wendy Crewson, Aubrey Poo, Talitha Ndima, Unathi Kapela

Credits:

Running time: 102 Minutes
Director: Darrell James Roodt
Screenwriters: Andre Pieterse, Darrell James Roodt, based on the book, “Winnie Mandela: A Life,” by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob
Producers: Andre Pieterse, Michael Mosca
Executive producers: Ellen Wander, Geoffrey Qhena, Gert Gouws, Philisiwe Buthelezi, Hlengiwe Makhatini
Camera: Mario Janelle
Production designer: Emelia Weavind
Music: Laurent Eyquem
Costume designer: Pierre Vienings
Editor: Sylvain Lebel