Her courage inspired a nation.
Nelson Mandela is justifiably famous. He was an active campaigner in anti-Apartheid movements before carrying out a series of bombings that led to a life sentence. Despite his confinement, he continued to be a part of the movement, and his face because the poster for the repression of the black African population of South Africa. Once he was finally freed after years of international effort, he was elected to a five-year term as South Africa’s first democratically elected black leader. While I mean to take nothing away from him, he didn’t do it alone. He was part of an organization that orchestrated the bombings, and there was a group responsible for the campaign for his release. Perhaps most prominent among them his wife, Winnie Mandela, a fellow activist. Winnie Mandela tells her story, from her life in a small village, to meeting Mandela, being separated from him, and all her legal troubles going forward. It’s a surprisingly warts-and-all biopic that showcases a wonderful performance from Jennifer Hudson as Winnie.
Winnie (Jennifer Hudson, Dream Girls) moves from her village in Africa to Johannesburg, working as a model when she meets Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard, Iron Man), a young lawyer who wants to fight the bitter racism of the Apartheid government. Though they’re separated by his incarceration, she fights on, earning her own reputation as a fiery supporter of her peoples’ self-determination.
Winnie Mandela gets two very important things right that keep it from being just another biopic of a famous political figure. The first, ironically enough, is showing that Winnie Mandela is not the perfect, saintly woman that so many seem to demand from those with political grievances. It’s hard to paint her as a perfect person. She has endorsed violence, has been seen as uncompromising towards the white population after Nelson took power, and she has been linked to a number of criminal proceedings don’t paint her in a positive light. Winnie Mandela refuses to compromise by erasing those aspects of her character from the film. It would have been too easy to show a rural upbringing, her meeting with Mandela, than then only show the positive things she did to help win his freedom. Instead, the film is willing to show that she was banished from Soweto, and when she returned, her “bodyguards” became more like a personal army, intimidating a lot of people at her command. Still, the film doesn’t ignore the good she did, instead opting for a more rounded approach than many biopics, especially of political figures.
The second thing that Winnie Mandela gets right is casting Jennifer Hudson as the lead. There was a lot of talk post-Dreamgirls about whether that performance was a fluke. Winnie Mandela pretty handily demonstrates that it wasn’t. She doesn’t have to sing, so it’s all acting for Hudson, and she makes Winnie a compelling figure. It’s hard to get under the skin of such a singular and fiery personality, but Hudson is convincing from the beginning. The way she ages works perfectly as well, gradually revealing the ravages of time on a woman strong enough to bear them. It’s a really great performance. Howard does his best to match it; he doesn’t have the sheer screen presence of Idris Elba, but what Howard lacks in gravitas he makes up in subtlety. His Mandela has charm and passion, even if isn’t as stadium-filling as some other actors might be.
RLJ does a fine job with the film. Their 2.35:1 1080p transfer handles the move from African vistas to emotional close-ups easily. Detail is generally strong, with colors that are well-saturated. Black levels are sufficiently deep and consistent. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track keeps dialogue clean and clear from the front, with the surrounds providing some atmosphere. The set’s lone extra is a nice EPK-style making-of featurette, combining clips from the film with cast and crew interviews.
The film’s one big misstep is to make Elias Koteas the villain. He’s the government official who gets to take glee in persecuting the Mandelas. It sounds like a good idea, putting a face to the faceless bureaucracy that tormented the Mandelas for decades. Instead, it makes the historical fact of the massive institutionalization of racism seem like a personal vendetta rather than a collection of policy decisions embedded in the whole culture. It’s hardly enough to ruin the film, but it does reduce the film’s usefulness as an index of history. It’s also strange, given that the film is so willing to put Winnie’s problems on display, to simplify her opposition so easily.
Winnie Mandela is an interesting biopic that refuses to smooth over a rough subject. Though it’s likely to get lost in the sea of praise for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (not to mention the furor over 12 Years a Slave), it’s a worthwhile entry into the canon of films that deal with race and contemporary history, and worth tracking down for anyone interested in the subject of South Africa or new perspectives on the Mandelas.