Winnie: Hindered History Lesson

The biopic of Winnie Mandela features great performances from Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard, but gets compromised by its rose-coloured portrait of the Mandelas’ relationship and its avoidance of its subject’s difficult later struggles.

One of the most anticipated movies of this year’s Montreal Black Film Festival was Winnie, the biography of Winnie Mandela starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard as the couple who spearheaded the fight against apartheid.

Directed by South African Darrell Roodt (the Oscar-nominated Yesterday) and scripted by Roodt and Andre Pieterse (based on the biography by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob), Winnie’s main asset is an unbelievably emotional performance by Jennifer Hudson, who outshines the always great Terrence Howard. In her second-best role since Dreamgirls, Hudson is a marvel. As Winnie Mandela, she is a fighter, a heartbroken wife and a loving mother, all rolled into one, and most importantly she is not without flaws. Winnie Mandela’s image was permanently tarnished when, towards the end of apartheid in South Africa, she was involved in the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi under the pretence that he was an informer.

Winnie’s biggest flaw is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. The film is a mostly rose-coloured drama about the romantic relationship between Winnie and Nelson Mandela. The thirty-something years that Nelson Mandela spent in incarceration are the most compelling part of the movie, thanks to Hudson, who shines as Winnie at the height of her struggle to end apartheid and to free her husband.

However, it is not enough to make the movie a memorable one. There is no psychological build-up into Winnie’s moral descent. What would make her take part in the so-called “necklacings” (when black kids put a burning tire on the necks of black “informers” and covered them in gasoline)? Just for the sake of a viewer who may not know anything about Winnie Mandela, how can a woman, who has until this point in the movie been portrayed with such grandeur, degrade so quickly and become the antihero? This is when the film falls flat, as it fails to answer such an important question in the narrative. Just when it actually gets interesting and dramatic, it ends. ■


Winnie opens Oct. 5.

Radina Papukchieva blogs at The Café Phenomenon. @Papukchieva on Twitter.

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