Now playing at International Village
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a walking, breathing contradiction.
The “mother of the nation” stood by husband Nelson Mandela’s side while he was imprisoned for 27 years, keeping the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa going in his absence. She was also convicted of kidnapping, and charged with over 40 counts of fraud. She was a wildly popular, if divisive, MP, yet rarely attended parliament.
It’s that incongruity that director Darrell James Roodt strives to highlight in the new biopic Winnie, starring Jennifer Hudson. Working from Winnie Mandela: A Life, by Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob, the film focuses on the activist’s early life and courtship with Mandela, in order to temper the scandals that plagued her later years.
The film opens with pastoral shots of the Transkei, at the very beginning. “Enough girls now, we need a boy,” says dad, as he picks up his newborn baby girl—his sixth—while mom sits panting in the corner. Young Winnie (Unathi Kapela) spends her childhood trying to be the son her father never had, stick-fighting with the local boys and eschewing the conventional roles of South African girls.
Early on, young Winnie outpaces her schoolteacher father and leaves home to study social work in Johannesburg in the 1950s. Winnie (now played by Hudson) is offered a full ride to a college in Boston, but chooses to remain in her home country instead. How can she leave when there are 10 abandoned babies a week at the Soweto Hospital?
She and Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard) meet cute, at a bus stop. He offers her a ride, she politely declines. But she is more receptive to the politically active Mandela, the one who declares that “ours is the struggle for justice, not domination.” While some South Africans advocate violence, Mandela dreams of a democratic homeland.
Marriage and children follow. As Mandela’s status in the African National Congress rises, so does the police presence. The brutality of the regime is shown best in small moments, as when the police chief (Elias Koteas) violates the last piece of the newlyweds’ wedding cake.
Winnie continues fighting against apartheid after her husband is imprisoned early in their marriage. She is jailed herself, spending almost 400 days in solitary confinement. “The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become,” she says.
All but one white South African (Wendy Crewson, as Winnie’s friend and co-worker) is demonized, and portrayed as a little nutso. If you thought the obsessive police chief was bad, wait until you see Winnie’s female warden (Anriette Van Wyk) lose her cool and stomp on a family of ants.
Nelson and Winnie fall out over the Mandela United Football Club, Winnie’s bodyguards, who do more than their share of strong-arming on the streets of Soweto. Rumours of infidelity drive a wedge between the couple, though not as much as Winnie’s sanction of violence and “necklacing”—a gruesome ritual in which alleged informants are made to wear a tire around their neck, which is then lit on fire.
But it’s the death of a 13-year-old boy that’s the final straw: Winnie is charged with kidnapping and assault. When, after 27 years, Mandela is freed, one of the first orders of business is to leave Winnie behind.
It’s a comprehensive portrait viewed from an emotional arm’s-length: Winnie’s ups and downs are given equal weight with no judgment is passed. As a result, fine performances by Hudson and Howard aren’t pushed to greatness. Orchestration early on threatens to drown out the proceedings, before the film finds its footing in later scenes. But for a generation whose apartheid education largely consists of U2 lyrics, Winnie offers a decent overview of the life of South Africa’s second most-famous citizen.