As a biography of Winnie Mandela and, more indirectly, her husband Nelson, Winnie is fairly predictable. It neatly summarizes complex lives and avoids inherent controversy. It succeeds, ultimately, in its positive view of African culture and the performances of its lead actors.
Winnie begins with its title character’s birth, not as lazy storytelling but to show us her schoolteacher father wanted a boy. As she grows up, this early dismissal sows her stubbornness. She studies hard, beats the local guys at their own game of “stick fighting” and upon adulthood (played by Jennifer Hudson), finds a bright future in Johannesburg. There she meets Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard), a peaceful political activist, at least in this movie. He is eventually charged with acts of terrorism and imprisoned for life. The legitimacy of the charges is all but ignored — oddly, considering Mandela himself has been honest about the human cost of his struggle.
Winnie does not try to be a history lesson. Its characters are idealized and its view of apartheid superficial. The film’s central villain, a high-ranking army officer (Elias Koteas) is given slight consideration.
No matter. In watching Winnie I tried to ignore its historical oversights and focus more on its craftsmanship. Here is a South Africa plagued by racism, yes, but alive with culture. Music brings protest rallies to life. Children attend a half-built schoolhouse, but beam with an eagerness to learn. The style of the period is preserved in great detail.
Hudson avoids overacting — she’s already won her Oscar. Her Winnie is let down by the screenplay — which provides only passing motivation for her unbreakable spirit — but within its limits, she creates a compelling character. Howard too breaks through limited dimensions; his Mandela is a sly, charming man, tender and thoughtful in his speeches. I’m not sure these two characters fit together; they spent most of their lives apart. Their relationship ended in bitter divorce. Marketing presenting Winnie as a love story may not have the actual movie in mind.
I don’t doubt Winnie fudges the facts. To what degree, however, I’m not really qualified to say. Surely the Mandelas are controversial figures capable of being seen through many different historical and cultural lenses. The one Winnie chooses is a bit blurry and indistinct, but it gets the period details right enough.
Director: Darrell Roodt
D Films, 107 minutes