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‘Winnie Mandela’ is a strange mix of two flawed stories

‘Winnie Mandela’ is a strange mix of two flawed stories

WinnieMandela_posterWinnie Mandela

Written by Darrell Roodt and Andre Pieterse

Directed by Darrell Roodt

Canada/South Africa, 2011

Darrell Roodt’s film Winnie Mandela is an oddity. It’s almost trying to be two movies squeezed into the running time of one: first, a typical biography of the “Mother of the Nation” of South Africa; later, a dark and ambiguous look at some of the horrible things that Winnie Mandela was accused of doing while her husband Nelson served a 27-year prison sentence. Both movies have good intentions but both are also heavily flawed, with awkward tonal shifts and misuse of fine actors. There will be better movies this fall, and worse ones, but no movie this season will be quite so strange.

Roodt (a South African director responsible for the well-received Sarafina! and the vile Dangerous Ground) recruited Academy-recognized talent for this joint Canadian/South African production: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela. However, there seems to be a clear divide between the two roles. During the first hour of the film when Nelson Mandela is not in prison, there are long sequences where Howard is on screen and Hudson is not, plus other scenes where they’re both on screen but Howard has the lion’s share of the dialogue. Perhaps this decision was made so that Howard’s excellent impersonation of Nelson Mandela would not go to waste, but it’s a bizarre choice for a movie titled Winnie Mandela.

It’s only once Nelson Mandela goes to prison that the movie becomes Hudson’s, which is both blessing and curse. Roodt finally gives her performance time to breathe in these sequences, where before she had been stifled by Howard’s presence. In the moments where she is called upon to deliver the same sort of stirring speeches that Howard had previously done, Hudson acquits herself well. However, a sequence where Winnie spends more than a year in solitary confinement asks Hudson to do things that would make any actor look bad: babbling and singing to herself, talking to the ants on the ground, and so on. The solitary confinement scenes are supposed to be harrowing, but they tend more towards the unintentionally comic.

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Moreover, the film is assembled in a choppy fashion that suffocates most of the performances, not just Hudson’s. Scenes seem to begin in the middle and get cut off far before they appear ready to end. One early sequence, where Nelson Mandela is arrested and taken to trial by a racist policeman (Elias Koteas), is discarded without even resolving the court case. The movie whisks the audience through Winnie Mandela’s life so quickly that it’s difficult to get one’s bearings as to what the characters should be feeling in each scene.

Winnie-Mandela

The film’s bravest decision is to address the Mandela United Football Club. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement dealt harshly with people that they deemed to be collaborators and traitors. For protection, Winnie Mandela surrounded herself with a group of bodyguards who dressed as a soccer team but acted as her enforcers. The MUFC was accused of a number of human rights violations, including “necklacing” (putting a gasoline-soaked tire around the necks of victims and setting it aflame) and the murder of a 14-year-old boy, James “Stompi” Seipei. The script by Roodt and Andre Pieterse should be commended for confronting the issue directly, even quoting the controversial 1986 speech where Winnie Mandela said, “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”

However, the issue is approached as awkwardly as this film approaches everything else. The MUFC is given a semi-comic introduction where it seems that they will be playing the heroic protectors of the Mandela family, and their subsequent U-turn into thuggery is jarring and nonsensical. The concept of necklacing is presented to Winnie as a horrible thing which she should avoid, but within minutes she delivers the infamous speech supporting it. What changed her mind? The movie either doesn’t know, or left its explanation on the cutting room floor.

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It’s possible that Winnie Mandela’s life was simply too full for a two-hour film. However, the BBC was able to tread much of the same territory in 2010 with the made-for-TV movie Mrs Mandela, which starred Sophie Okenedo in the title role and clocked in at 90 minutes. Thus, it’s much more likely that the filmmakers behind Winnie Mandela didn’t have a good idea of what to keep and what to discard, both in the writer’s room and in the editing room. The film they came up with just doesn’t make enough sense.

– Mark Young