The Screen Life of Winnie Mandela

Apparently Jennifer Hudson had to lose 60 pounds to star as Winnie Mandela in a planned biopic. Mandela was a leading figure in South African politics in the late 20th century and who was married to former South African president throughout his 27-year imprisonment. They divorced five years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Winnie Mandela is making a political comeback of sorts as one of the supporters of new president, Jacob Zuma after being sacked by her former husband from his Cabinet in the late 1990s.

But back to film.  Recently Mrs Mandela has announced that she has plans to sue the director, Darrell Roodt (who is also South African), for not giving her the opportunity to ‘provide input’ in the film. Perhaps she would have been happier with the recent BBC TV film, “Mrs Mandela,” which, although it did not shy away from her involvement in murder–specifically that of child activist Stompie Seipei in 1985– at least provided a much more contextualised picture of her role in the struggle.

The acting in the BBC TV drama was a bit ham-handed, but it was worth watching just to get a fuller picture of the ordeals she suffered under apartheid than the demonisation she often undergoes in the South African press when it contrasts her with her saintly former spouse.  A documentary film that followed the drama on the BBC was much better, though, providing snapshots into the nightmare of apartheid by means of old Panorama footage. Hopefully these programmes will get a wider airing.

Herman Wasserman

Herman Wasserman is professor of media studies and director of the Center for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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