Movie Review: “Winnie”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, September 6, 2013 at 7:00 am.

(Photo: Ironwood Films)

Summary: A biopic on Winnie Mandela, who was known as “Mother of the Nation” during apartheid-era South Africa and was eventually labeled a corrupt political figure who condoned the murder of a child. Starring Jennifer Hudson, the film tackles forty years of Winnie’s life, including her marriage to Nelson Mandela, who is portrayed by Terrence Howard.

Review: After over two years, Winnie finally opens in select theaters today. The flick originally made its rounds at film festivals, first debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. But critics have been rough on the Darrell Roodt-directed film, which is currently distributed by Image Entertainment. Maybe it’s because Winnie Mandela herself is such a polarizing figure, or perhaps people are skeptical of another film about the Mandelas. In addition, Winnie Mandela blasted the movie, which is an adaptation of Anne Marie du Preez Bezrob’s biography Winnie Mandela: A Life. Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife said: “I think that it is a total disrespect to come to South Africa, make a movie about my struggle and call that movie some translation of a romantic life of Winnie Mandela.” There was also discussion about the casting of Jennifer Hudson, with many questioning why a South African actress wasn’t chosen to play a South African legend.

Putting the controversies aside and solely focusing on the movie, Winnie is no masterpiece, but not nearly as bad as the early reviews. Critics argued the movie glamorized Winnie Mandela’s life and glossed over her involvement in the horrific murder of 14-year old ANC activist Stompie Moekets. Plus, the controversial Mandela United Football Club — Winnie Mandela’s violent security team. Winnie tackled these issues without demanding the audience to sympathize or hate her, the viewer is left to make their own decision. Similar to The Iron Lady, the biopic on Margaret Thatcher (a perfect example of glamorizing a woman who was not a champion for equal rights or fair pay), Winnie attempts to morph her into a feminist icon, which she is not. But there is enough balance, which biopics usually lack.

That said, Winnie suffers from an awkward script, plagued with trite biopic scenarios (she comes from poverty, meets the love of her life, becomes a star and loses everything by the film’s end). But when director Darrell Roodt avoids the clichés and touches on the complexities of Winnie, who was once revered, the film finds its lane — at least for a few frames.

Jennifer Hudson becoming Winnie Mandela was a huge task for the Oscar winner. She clearly gave her all but the role consumed her, which could be more a fault of the storyline. Yes, Hudson struggled with the accent, but more importantly, she never seemed to fully capture the essence of Winnie Mandela. There is an important transition of Winnie as an angelic figure to one of the most hated people in the nation — this is never fleshed out. One scene she is perfect, the next scene she is evil. Some finessing of the story might have resulted in a much better performance. Hudson was by no means awful, but she didn’t own the nuanced ferocity needed for Winnie Mandela. In addition, many raised an eyebrow at Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela, but the Oscar nominee was surprisingly effective. His accent, demeanor and chemistry with Hudson as Winnie made you forget the slick, villainous characters he’s mastered over the years.

Winnie suffered many hiccups and historians will not be satisfied. The story wasn’t told as powerfully as it could have been, but one cannot deny the importance of Winnie Mandela’s tribulations and contributions to South Africa, which the film appropriately highlights.

Winnie opens in select cities today.

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