When the subject of your movie says “I have everything against the movie itself,” that should probably be a sign you’ve got a problem on your hands. A biopic about the first wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, Winnie is a South African/Canadian co-production based on a biography of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela written by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob. Whether Madikizela-Mandela saw the film herself before she made her statement isn’t clear, but it is clear that she wasn’t consulted on the project, and that regardless, she should be offended by this tedious, flat and sentimental telling of her life story.
Opening with Winnie’s birth in the countryside, her schoolteacher father is disappointed that his sixth daughter isn’t a son. A swelling score accompanies the usual scenes of young Winnie stick fighting and excelling in school, breaking out of her village’s proscribed roles for girls. Suddenly as a young woman (Jennifer Hudson) her father is proud of her, sending her off to college in Johannesburg to be a social worker. There she continues to be a great student, makes friends, and encounters racial discrimination as she adjusts to the big city. She also meets Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard), falls in love, gets married, and joins him in his fight to end apartheid, continuing his work while he’s imprisoned.
The film moves very quickly through the early days, which is unfortunate for Hudson, as she plays the wide-eyed country girl and young lover much better than she does the experienced revolutionary. Until the uprisings really get going, it’s hard to keep track of how much time has passed. A lack of depth plagues the whole production, from the predictable scene of Winnie not being allowed to buy a dress in a white-owned shop, to the mere passing mentions of what systemic discrimination black South Africans were subjected to, to the corny and saccharine dialogue, to the flat and uninteresting characters. The movie doesn’t “show” and barely “tells,” hinting at moments that might have made interesting scenes – but heaven forbid deeper relationships with secondary characters be developed (in particular the Mandela daughters, who are essentially afterthoughts for the entire movie except for when Winnie is arrested and later comes home from a year in solitary confinement), or that more than minimal conflict occur between our leads.
The lack of character development isn’t only felt in the caricatures populating the white government and police forces, but in Winnie herself. The real Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a complex and controversial figure in South Africa, currently serving as a Member of Parliament despite her past advocacy for violent resistance and a number of criminal convictions (some of which are touched on in the film). As she moves from loyal wife to leader in her own right, Hudson gets in over her head as an actress and the choppy script doesn’t help. Being in prison for much of the movie, Howard doesn’t get a ton of screen time as Mandela, but he’s at least able to handle the gravity of his role and does his best with the little he’s given to work with. The film does well in aging Howard over its forty-year timeline, but does little to Hudson other than giving her a spectacularly accurate wardrobe in each era.
The film ends with Winnie’s appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though she doesn’t say anything in the scene. It’s probably for the best. After some ‘where are they now’ text, the obligatory Jennifer Hudson single begins for the end credits and it’s hard not to let out a sigh. A number of South African actors spoke out against the casting of Americans in the lead roles, and Winnie Mandela has noted she was not consulted for the film (apparently a deliberate decision by the filmmakers), but considering the poor writing and directing I don’t know if that would have helped. First it’s a syrupy love story, then it’s a poorly told uprising story, and together it misses the nuances of the historical context and the point.