'Winnie' fails to capture the essence of Mrs. Mandela
05:00 AM, Sep 05, 2013
Winnie Mandela is a simplistic look at a complex figure.
The film that bears her name (** out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities) seems unsure just how much to include of Winnie Mandela’s controversial adult life and how heavily to focus on her famous husband, Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid leader and South Africa’s first black president.
An important presence in South Africa, once known as “the mother of the nation,” Mandela (born Winifred Madikizela) is almost sanctified for the first half of the film. Her relationship with Nelson Mandela is portrayed initially as a starry-eyed love story. She joins his struggle for racial equality in South Africa and together they are a powerful force for freedom. She becomes the nation’s first black social worker.
But her worshipful depiction changes during Nelson’s imprisonment (which lasted 27 years), and moves closer to vilification. Winnie, played by Jennifer Hudson, is also jailedfor 18 monthson terrorism charges. After that, she becomes radicalized, utilizing the services of “Mandela United Football club” that purportedly provides her with security. Nelson Mandela denounces her security detail as thugs. Soon, her marriage unravels. But the movie doesn’t probe her psycheor her husband’sdeeply enough to explain their marital dissolution. It glosses over her purported infidelity and any other damning behavior.
We do see that, over time, the mercurial Winnie takes positions that are more extreme than that of her husband, played with equanimity and charisma by Terrence Howard. She advocates violence and is implicated in the kidnapping and murder of a young activist. She is deemed dangerous to the anti-apartheid movement. How this metamorphosis happens in a woman who started out as an altruistic social worker is never made clear.
So good in Dreamgirls, Hudson works hard to convey the gravitas of the role, but she struggles in a part that might have been better suited for a more experienced actress.
Winnie was the sixth daughter of a rural schoolteacher father who yearned for a son. As a child, Winnie (Unathi Kapela) engages in aggressive stick fighting with boys, enduring such taunts as “You are nothing but a little girl.”
Later, her father scolds her and emphasizes their rural traditions.
This over-obvious analysis is meant to provide a sense of what drives her. She feels she’s a disappointment to her father.
One of the most moving scenes is when Winnie appears in court in traditional African garb and is excoriated by the judge, who fears it will incite the crowd. She responds, with dignity: “Of the limited rights I have in this country, I still have the right to choose my own clothing.”
While its depiction of rampant racism is effectively rendered, the film relies too heavily on overbearing, triumphant music, biopic cliches and repetition of personal mythology.
This is not the untold story. This barely scratches the surface and dodges the titular character’s troubling complexity, preferring to play it safe by focusing on a one-dimensional portrait of the love story between Nelson and Winnie.
With this superficial and ambiguous account, audiences will gain little insight into what propelled Winnie Mandela.