Upon completion of my first viewing of Darrell Roodt’s Winnie Mandela, I couldn’t help but struggle a little bit. Who exactly is the film for? Surely it can’t be for history buffs – the events of the famous anti-apartheid activist’s life have been heavily glorified here. It makes for a better film, yes, but is a bit bothersome when paralleled with reality. Given its origin from the biography Winnie Mandela: A Life, I imagine anybody serious about gaining an understanding of what Winnie’s actual struggles were like would simply take that work for a spin instead.
Alright, that’s fine then – nobody said films based on reality have to reflect it entirely. As a reviewer, I’m more than okay with sacrifices being made for the sake of telling a great story, or developing compelling characters. Surely the desire to craft a likable and relatable Mandela is the reason this film deviates so frustratingly from what may have actually occurred. This is a nice thought as well, but alas, Winnie Mandela’s eminent protagonist comes off as neither likable, relatable, nor especially appealing to the average audience member. Hmm, scratch that off the list too then.
As its name pretty much entirely reveals, Winnie Mandela aims to relay the life and struggle of the famous now-politician’s sprawling experience fighting South African apartheid in the mid 1900s. Though many may know her simply as Nelson Mandela’s wife, her story on paper is an interesting one, and the film definitely grabs at its more exciting points in its attempt to construct an interesting and worthwhile onscreen experience. The film does this just effectively enough, and there’s no doubt Winnie Mandela will be playing in classrooms ’round the nation for years to come once it hits Blu-ray and DVD. If that was the film’s goal, then wonderful. Mission accomplished! As a student I would probably enjoy it more than Henry VIII and His Six Wives, or that cheesy pseudo-documentary reenactment of Otto Von Bismarck’s life. So that’s something.
The issue with the film isn’t necessarily the acting, but rather the audience’s relationship with Winnie as a character. Jennifer Hudson for the most part does everything asked of her; her sadness is real and visible when it needs to be, her compassion for her cause and belief in what she’s doing is palpable, and though it’s no Oscar-winning effort, I really have nothing bad to say about the way she handled the character. With all that said, Hudson is not the caliber of actress who can brute-strength a “meh” screenplay with her bare hands and turn it to gold (very few can), and in that regard her character falls flat. As the film progressed I also felt like I needed to keep checking my fact-sheet – “no, you’re supposed to sympathize with Winnie! Sure, she did some bad things, but her intentions were in the right place!” Switch off the little voice in my head, though, and I just didn’t much enjoy the Winnie Mandela portrayed on screen.
Elsewhere the film struggles in similar if less pronounced ways, though the acting overall continues to be the least of the film’s worries. Terrence Howard, though admittedly an odd choice to anyone familiar with his past work, does a more-than-serviceable job taking on Nelson Mandela – once you get used to what he’s putting out there, it grows on you and begins to make sense. In some ways his character is almost more likable than Winnie herself, despite the negligible difference in acting performance between the two characters.
I know it’s perfectly possible that Winnie is meant to instill dissonance in the mind of the viewer, but if that’s the case then the film is even more confused about what it wants to be. Are you glorifying Mandela or not? One moment this film revels in near-shameless drapery of movie magic over its real-life source material, but the next it tries to force me into making a tough hero-becomes-the-villain judgment call. I’m not saying movies aren’t allowed to multitask, but Winnie Mandela has bitten off way more than it can chew, and the effects of doing so are decidedly negative.
All in all, Winnie Mandela isn’t a terrible movie. It’ll no-doubt hit the classroom circuit as mentioned, and probably be remembered by lots of people. That said, as a biopic it’s pretty disappointing, and though it’d make for a stellar TV-network effort, as a full-on theatrical release it’s hard to get too excited about it.