Winnie Mandela, A Biography of Freedom (Film Review)



Taking a microscope’s view of one of the most prominent names in the fight against Apartheid, the movie Winnie Mandela comes to the big screen.  The biographical feature has all the trappings of an interesting story that reaches for an embrace from those who have suffered prejudice and those who cannot fathom it ever being a part of their lives.  Absorbing, brief and up in your face reality reveals more than most know about the woman who became obsessed with her husband’s quest for freedom and equality.

Winnie was the last of six girls born to Columbus Madikizela (Professor Mavuso) in a small African tribal home where her father was a school teacher.  Her tomboy attitude came from her father wanting the boy he never had and she found herself being aggressive, even participating in tribal stick fights.  The young woman grew fast and learned well becoming an advocate for child welfare. She was offered the position of social worker at a hospital which Winnie (Jennifer Hudson) gladly took and dived into her new profession with eagerness unfounded in those days.

Jennifer Hudson as Winnie and Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela

Jennifer Hudson as Winnie and Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela

South Africa was oppressed buy its European populace and required all Africans to carry a pass book in order to walk the streets to shop, work and any other everyday chores.  One day Winnie passes by a city square where she sees Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard) giving a speech on equality in life, jobs and property ownership, things not allowed to South Africans.  Her interest piqued, she stays for the whole address catching the eye of the much older freedom advocate.  Sometime later he sees Winnie at a bus stop and acknowledges her.  After a chance meeting at a restaurant where she is dining with a friend, Nelson offers to take her to lunch.  Thus starts a romance and marriage that helps to change the face of history for South Africa.

The biography goes on to show her support for Nelson following his incarceration for conspiracy to overthrow the government and sabotage.  While Nelson serves his life term Winnie takes up the mission to bring equality to South Africa, but instead of a calm approach she turns to a position of power to the people urging them to rise up against Apartheid even with violence.  She gets arrested and thrown into jail for terrorism where she serves over a year in solitary confinement. Director and writer Darrell Roodt (Sarafina) keeps the intrigue at a high level as he plays out the story taking his audience deep into the soul of Winnie.

Winnie (Hudson) at a power rally with the Mandela Football Club

Winnie (Hudson) at a power rally with the Mandela Football Club

His choice of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela the rebel who would not stand down while being persecuted by police Major DeVries (Elias Koteas) is brilliant.  Her ability to show the magnitude of Winnie’s will to bring freedom to her people is testimony to her acting prowess.  Showing the slow personal degrading, aging and disposition changes of her character, Hudson clearly embodies the trials of the woman who would not let go of her beliefs.  As Winnie starts a downward spiral initiated by absence from her incarcerated husband, alcohol abuse and the power craze from her leadership in the Mandela Football Club we see the effects on her long fight eroding her away.

Her co-star Terrence Howard does a very good job of bringing Nelson Mandela to life on the big screen.  His strong will shows big as this giant who fought for the rights of his people to be equal to any man in his beloved country.  His finest moment comes with a speech in front of his accusers at his trial that gives meaning to Mandela’s quest for the end of Apartheid in South Africa. His later expression to his wife Winnie that he would rather die than appeal his case showed his devotion to the cause.

The downside to the film is the over indulgence, although warranted, to the high profile life of Nelson that overshadows the biography of Winnie. Even though I found Winnie’s life to be interesting and often chaotic, my focus often gravitated to that of Nelson’s plight.  While the presentation is well done, Winnie’s life becomes more a bump in the road for the freedom fighter’s long life as a revolutionary.

Hudson portraying Winnie in jail

Hudson portraying Winnie in jail

Makeup artists do a terrific job of aging and showing the effects of the punishment the characters have to deal with in the film.  As the months pass by in the dank solitary cell used to break Winnie’s will, Hudson’s body becomes a drab pallet for makeup gurus to show the effects of her incarceration for over a year.  Even Howard gets attention from the artists showing the wear on his life from the 27 years in a prison cell.

Winnie Mandela has been rated R by the MPAA for some violence and language.  Some of the movie includes actual photos and film from newsreels of the Sharpville massacre and other key moments in the Mandela movement.  At the end of the film while Jennifer Hudson sings “Bleed For Love” during the credits we see actual photos of the progression of the real Winnie Mandela from her marriage to today.

FINAL ANALYSIS: A close look at the wife of a noted freedom fighter. (C )

Additional Film Information:
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Elias Koteas
Directed by: Darrell Roodt
Written by:  Andre Pieterse, Darrell Roodt
Genre: Biography, Drama
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language    
Running Time: 1 hr 47 min
Opening Date: September 6, 2013
Distributed by: RLJ Entertainment (Image Entertainment)

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