In his latest filmic portrayal of apartheid-era South Africa, director Darrell Roodt delves into the tumultuous relationship between South Africa’s most influential political activist, Nelson Mandela, and his wife, Winnie.
Bearing two Hollywood actors in the leads with Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela and Jennifer Hudson in the titular role, Roodt’s film strives to tell a powerful story of the South African people. However, the majority of the movie is woefully bereft of South African performers.
Understandably so, given the hesitancy of major studios to finance projects lacking any star power. Nonetheless, it’s a bit surprising to see that filmmakers are still having to sacrifice authenticity for money. In the same way a high school production of West Side Story might try to transform its Anglo-Saxon students into Puerto Rican gang members with gobs of self-tanner, Winnie fools no one with its poorly executed accents.
That being said, the film has its merits in Roodt’s immersive cinematography and storytelling capabilities. Winnie follows the life of Mrs. Mandela from girlhood to the forefront of South African political revolution. We see the intimate moments between her and Nelson along with the controversial events that lead up to her downfall.
Jennifer Hudson tries hard, but doesn’t achieve much better than a one-dimensional performance as the troubled Winnie Mandela. When Nelson is sentenced to life in prison, the camera cuts to an expressionless Hudson who, while able to embody the character’s strength and stoicism, gives little empathy to a woman who goes on to endure imprisonment and banishment before finally being rejected by her own people.
The closest Hudson comes to transcendency in her role is when she is locked up in solitary confinement, but much of that is helped along by the script and Hudson’s makeup artists. Conversely, Terrence Howard is captured in a moving moment when Nelson Mandela is finally able to see his wife in prison. Tears well up in his eyes as he silently raises a hand to the glass that separates him from his love, comforted and taunted by their almost-touching fingers.
At times harrowing and contentious, Winnie paints an honest portrait of a person who lives through the harshest of circumstances and responds in a less-than-saintly fashion. In a telling and overtly metaphorical scene, Winnie is seen watching a television broadcast about her involvement in a recent murder. She cuts herself on a glass she has thrown against the wall and stares in horror at the blood that is now, both figuratively and metaphorically, on her hands. Perhaps this is Roodt’s most revealing instant in which we see that freedom from oppression always comes at a cost, even at the expense of those who have so perseveringly fought for it.