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Movie review: ‘Winnie Mandela’

Winnie Mandela

Director: Darrell Roodt

Cast: Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson

Rated: R (violence, strong language)

Running time: 107 min.


Posted 5:23pm on Thursday, Sep. 05, 2013

From the swelling melody on the soundtrack that opens the film to the Wind Beneath My Wings-like ballad that closes it, Winnie Mandela — chronicling the life of Nelson Mandela’s controversial ex-wife — feels less like history come alive than Hollywood hagiography at its most blandly sentimental.

Based on the book by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, directed by Darrell Roodt (Cry, the Beloved Country), and co-produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes, Winnie Mandela is earnest, well-intentioned, and pretty to look at — those South African vistas really are stunning. But it’s rarely compelling. In fact, there’s at least one moment that is unintentionally comedic.

Screenwriters Roodt and Andre Pieterse have a lot of life to telescope into under two hours, and they rush through Mandela’s childhood, young adulthood, and how she (Jennifer Hudson) met Nelson (Terrence Howard). But her headstrong sensibilities — turning down the opportunity to study in Boston in order to be a social worker in Johannesburg, for example — come through loud and clear.

Once Nelson is arrested and then Winnie is arrested, released and banned (living in exile within the country), the movie slows down a bit. But that’s where its biggest flaws become apparent. Howard is a capable Nelson Mandela but Hudson is outmatched. Also, while Nelson visibly ages, Winnie apparently has access to a secret fountain of youth.

Worse are the cartoonish caricatures of local Afrikaners — from the apartheid government’s main terrorist investigator, Colonel de Vries (the usually solid Canadian actor Elias Koteas), who really needs a moustache to twirl, to the snarling prison guards who could give master classes in overacting.

Wisely, Roodt doesn’t shy away from the troubles that dogged Winnie after she surrounded herself with questionable characters — most notably with the Mandela United Football Club, aka her bodyguards/thugs — and began to move away from Nelson’s avowed policy of nonviolence.

In the film, she is implicated in the murder of a teenager though it doesn’t go into the grimier details for which South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded: “The commission finds that those who opposed Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela and the Mandela United Football Club, or dissented from them, were branded as informers, and killed.”

Her metamorphosis, and how it affected her relationship with Nelson (they separated in 1992, divorced in 1996), could have been the basis for a penetrating, complex film. Winnie Mandela was a conflicted character in a conflicted country still coming to grips with issues of race, culture and power. But, as the credits roll and Hudson sings the rousing Diane Warren-penned ballad Bleed for Love, it puts an exclamation point on the realization that Winnie Mandela is most certainly not that film.

In English and Xhosa with English subtitles

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