Darrell Roodt‘s (Cry, the Beloved Country, Dangerous Ground) film has taken a circuitous route to get to us. It was launched at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago and was not warmly received. As such it was put on the shelves and some editing changes were made. Now it has a new distributor and seems ready to go to the public at large.
Singer/actress/former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson stars in the lead role as Winnie Mandela while Terrance Howard portrays Nelson Mandela. Winnie Mandela is a controversial figure in South African history. While her husband was incarcerated she basically became the figurehead of the ANC and made some decisions about the direction of the group that most did not agree with.
The biopic follows Winnie (Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls, The Secret Lives of Bees) from her childhood to after her husband is released after 27 years in prison. We see her as a small child trying desperately to be the son that her father wanted, as a young woman moving to Soweto to study, refusing a full scholarship to university in the United States to work in Soweto as a social worker, catching the eye of young lawyer/black rights activist Nelson Mandela (Terrance Howard – Crash, Iron Man), marrying Nelson Mandela and giving birth to two daughters, and finally becoming the voice of the ANC while her husband is in jail for 27 years. The woman was not a wilting flower that is for sure. She stood strong as those around her betray her and as the South African government through Colonel De Vries (Elias Koteas – The Thin Red Line, Shutter Island) arrests her and keeps her in solitary confinement for a very long time trying to break her. They never do and she emerges from that experience stronger than ever. But if we are to believe the film, she was not the same person after she came out as she drank heavily at times and made some violent decisions.
In regards to the history of the nation of South Africa this particular story is a very important one and as such expectations are high. Unfortunately the film does not live up to those expectations. During most of the film you get a completely sentimental view of Winnie Mandela while others the story is so superficial in its depiction of what was happening in South Africa at the time.
Many have criticized the selection of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela. I don’t think that her performance was the reason the film is weak. Especially her scenes in prison. The lady does suffering and on the verge of crazy well. As well she ably portrayed the strength of this woman. Terrence Howard is wonderful as Nelson Mandela. At times even his voice was dead on. He does the charisma (which Howard himself has to burn) of the man well and then as his character ages flawlessly shifts into an almost aristocratic character. What ultimately proves to be the downfall of the film is the way the story is told. It just felt like different pieces sewn together with no particular flow between them.
It also seems to me that most of the complex political and moral issues surrounding this time and Winnie Mandela’s part in it are toned down too much. Everything seems a little too simple or easy for my liking. There had to be more to it! Tons of potential for a nuanced story and plenty of drama, but those behind the scenes dropped the ball.