Film Review: Winnie Mandela

Affecting biographical drama about the controversial anti-apartheid crusader, wife of fellow South African racial-equality advocate Nelson Mandela.

Film biographies of controversial historical figures rarely satisfy, since viewers on one side or another of the political spectrum will fault the attempt for weighing too little or too heavily on particular events, while apolitical audiences fret over composite characters, scenes concocted for drama's sake and a pat parade-of-great-moments approach. Winnie Mandela, about the wife of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and a formidable fighter in her own right, isn't immune to this, but as a love story of a couple kept apart while remaining together for 27 years, all the time enduring physical, political and familial pressures that only a smattering of us can imagine let alone survive, it is emotionally moving and deeply affecting.

Director and co-writer Darrell Roodt certainly knows Mandela's terrain—the estimable South African's filmmaker's works include 1995's Cry, the Beloved Country and the Zulu-language Yesterday (2004), an Oscar nominee for Foreign Language Film. Winnie Mandela—originally titled Winnie and first shown at festivals in 2011—shows his adeptness both at geopolitical and cinematic shorthand, giving us a feel for exactly what "Soweto homeland" means with just one or two well-composed shots.

The film posits Nomzamo Winfreda Zanyiwe Madikizela as born with something to prove, the sixth girl of a schoolteacher father who wanted a boy. (The movie's based on Anné Màrie du Preez Bezdrob's biography Winnie Mandela: A Life; other biographical sources say she was the fourth of eight children.) But by 1953, when Winnie (Jennifer Hudson) leaves her tribal village to attend an integrated school in Johannesburg for a degree in social work, her father says how proud he is of her.

Two years later, she turns down a scholarship to attend college in Boston and becomes the first black social worker at Johannesburg's Baragwanath Hospital. There she meets nurse Adelaide Tambo (Leleti Khumalo), whose husband, Oliver (Hlomla Dandala), is law-firm partner with anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard). For some reason, the filmmakers indulge in a meet-cute in which Nelson sees Winnie in line for a bus and offers her a lift, painting Winnie as a political naïf rather than, as she was, someone already involved with the militant African National Congress (ANC).

Winnie and Nelson marry in 1958, under the vigilant eye of an apparent composite character, de Vries (Elias Koteas), a dark-suited and black-hatted official with the South African Police—essentially, the country's FBI. He's painted as unflinchingly evil, rather than some wrongheaded bureaucratic believer; one scene shows him going out of his way to take a bite out of a keepsake piece of Winnie's wedding cake and then spitting it out. Boo, hiss. It's to Koteas' credit that he makes the character magnetic in his sheer intractableness.

The film glosses over some points, such as Nelson co-founding Spear of the Nation, an ANC division that bombed government targets (albeit places devoid of people, while Nelson was involved). And the auto "accident" death of a white doctor who offers Winnie work during her 1977-85 exile in the Brandfort homeland seems a time-shifted dramatization of the 1989 shooting murder of Dr. Abu Baker Asvat, with whom she had set up a Brandfort clinic. Whatever the specifics, it's a throwaway sequence.

Still, the film is unflinching in showing Winnie eventually espousing homicidal "necklacing," in which gas-soaked tires are set ablaze around a suspected informer's head, and it strongly suggests her role in the death of 14-year-old James "Stompie" Mokhetsi Seipei (Abel Ndebelez), whose abduction by her priest-threatening bodyguards Roodt depicts in horrifying detail. The film evenhandedly portrays Winnie as a brutalized martyr locked in solitary confinement for 17 months and—by 1997, a year after her divorce, with her people freed and Nelson having become South Africa's president—as bitter, foul-mouthed and heavily drinking.

Through it all, Hudson manages the difficult task of portraying a historical figure with neither piety nor histrionics, but as an ordinary, if highly dignified and self-assured, woman. Howard melts into his role, handling aging and accent with equal aplomb. The film's accents, in fact, can make some dialogue difficult to comprehend, and subtitles, a la Ken Loach subtitling heavy British accents in 1991’s Riff-Raff, would have been welcome. Regardless of this and any historical nitpicks, Winnie Mandela is a powerful film of human resolve and superhuman patience in the face of unspeakable mass murder and cruelty in the name of racist law and order.