Biopic titles can be deceiving. The Doors is mostly about Jim Morrison rather than the entire band. Searching for Bobby Fischer is not at all about Bobby Fischer. And now Winnie is a film that should be called Winnie and Nelson because it’s hardly just about her. While Jennifer Hudson appears to have more total screen time in the role of South African activist Winnie Mandela (aka “Mother of the Nation”), Terrence Howard gets the better, more important close ups and lines by portraying her more famous ex-husband, Nelson.
Sometimes it’s just that Howard draws us in more. He’s the greater actor and has the more prestigious part. I guess he’s not a bad gateway to have. For so long Americans have mainly encountered South African apartheid stories through the filter of white protagonists aiding in the struggle. Similar to the annoyance critics have with The Help. This time we still have a white director at the helm -- Johannesburg-born Darrell Roodt (Cry, the Beloved Country) -- but we access much of the narrative through our familiarity with Nelson Mandela and the camera’s focus on his expression during so many instances in which we should instead be concentrated on her.
This wouldn’t be a huge fault if it weren’t for the way Winnie is constantly represented as being primarily the spouse of her husband and father to his children, contrary to the clear intention to show her as a strong and empowered female character. The film begins with a scene of her youth as she exhibits a talent for nguni stick fighting, a form of martial arts that girls are not socially permitted to participate in. She tells her father that she wants to be the son he never had, and doesn’t want to grow up to be just a wife and mother.
But then she’s grown and hanging out with her boy-crazy girlfriends who want to “go a few rounds” with the rising civil rights leader named Nelson Mandela. He takes a liking to Winnie and, though she initially puts up a fight, charms the pants off her by introducing her to spicy curry (“It’s true what they say, you are the most dangerous man in South Africa,” she says as she gulps down water). Short moment after short moment after short moment goes by -- there really aren’t many legitimate scenes so much as there are quickly chronicled series of filmic dioramas -- and then he is sentenced to life for treason. She visits him at Robben Island prison, where the camera stays on him nearly the whole time. It does that a lot.
Even when she continues his message on the outside, it’s as if she’s only living for him, and their children, rather than herself. Later, during the controversial years of the Mandela Football Club and Winnie’s political switch to supporting violent action, she doesn’t really seem to have much to do. Now she’s in the shadow of her bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, and the thugs he’s assembled in her name. If you’re not too knowledgeable of South African history, by the way, this abridged rush through the 1980s could be a bit too vague for you. And at the end of it, President de Klerk’s decision to release Nelson from prison comes across as just a sudden shrug and a “why not?” attitude.
Winnie has one great sequence, and by great I mean it’s at least given some time to play out, and we’re allowed to think about it. It’s really the least we could hope for in a significant drama about some of the most important historical events in the world during the 20th century. The sequence depicts Winnie’s own prison time, most of which was served in solitary confinement in order to break her spirit. It’s the first instance in the film where Hudson really seems to be acting rather than merely standing and reciting dialogue. Sure, she’s mostly staring blankly and chatting with ants, but I got the impression she really was trying hard to prove her Oscar is deserved. And she convinces me enough that it is, even if this performance won’t garner any additional Academy love.
Among the many reasons for that, she’s very much outshined by Howard, who’s as terrific a Nelson Mandela as any. And most have at least been nominated for an Oscar or Emmy. But could he be singled out for consideration in a movie as wholly ineffective and sure-to-be ignored as this? It might have been more appropriate as a made-for-TV movie, like last year’s BBC biopic on Winnie, titled Mrs. Mandela. That film directly tackles the idea that Winnie (Sophie Okonedo) is always first and foremost in Nelson’s shadow but represents her as something more, and it appears to touch on specific dramatic events more in depth yet with a shorter running time.
Even without the preference now to watch the competing Winnie Mandela film (which seems unavailable in the U.S.), there’s also the reality that Winnie and Nelson have been portrayed so many times by so many great actors that to produce a movie like this so sloppily, choppily and altogether unremarkably is a gigantic disappointment. You have to wonder what was the point.