No wonder Winnie Mandela objected to this

The film "Winnie Mandela" is what happens when you combine bad history and bad filmmaking.

Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela.

Remember when the South African director Darrell Roodt’s film, “Winnie Mandela,” (it used to be called “Winnie” only) first premiered in 2011 at Toronto Film Festival, and tanked? At the time Winnie Mandela herself declared that she didn’t like the film (unfortunately you have to watch Nadia Bilchik deliver this news), that she wasn’t consulted and threatened to sue the producers. But Mrs Mandela needn’t have bothered.

The lead actors, Terrance Howard and Jennifer Hudson’s acting was terrible; so was, as some critics noted at the time, the film’s “sentimentality” and one-dimensional portrayal of Winnie Mandela as heroine and “mother of the nation.” Here and here are some sample reviews from that premiere. So two years later, on  September 6th, the film finally went on general release. It also came with a marketing push to the “urban” market. You couldn’t miss the post card sized posters of “TD Jakes Presents Winnie Mandela” at your friendly, local dry cleaners or barbershop in any majority black neighborhood in the U.S. A new, improved TD Jakes-remixed trailer came with the release. But none of this seemed to have helped as this round of reviews confirmed that the film is a train wreck: This is what happens when you combine bad history and bad filmmaking.

Here’s the New York Times, whose headline writer titled it “‘Winnie Mandela,’ Starring Jennifer Hudson and Many Outfits.’…Early in Darrell J. Roodt’s rushed, patchy biopic, “Winnie Mandela,” the title character makes a grand entrance in a South African courtroom wearing a stunning outfit you might see in a glossy magazine devoted to African fashion. The judge is not amused. “Mrs. Mandela, this is a final warning,” he declares. “You will not come into this court wearing traditional regalia. It encourages dissent.” “My lord,” she replies haughtily, her eyes flashing daggers, as if she were Naomi Campbell in high dudgeon. “May I remind you that of the limited rights I have in this country, I still have the right to choose my own wardrobe.” …’

The Washington Post had similar insights, suggesting the film couldn’t make up its mind about Winnie:  “In truth, the casting is probably the only reason “Winnie Mandela” is in theaters today. Despite the marquee names and their obvious talent, the film feels like a made-for-TV movie. It’s slight and episodic, with a weirdly scrupulous ambivalence about its subject, whom it seems torn between loving and loathing.

“[The film] opens with its subject’s humble birth, accompanied by syrupy music that would not be out of place in a story about the life of Jesus Christ … the movie presents the Mandelas’ love as one of the great romances, at times depicting the struggle for black liberation as a pesky hindrance to their being together.”

The LA Times found some redeeming quality: Jennifer Hudson gets to sing: “… Hudson hasn’t the acting chops to suggest complexities despite the material’s shallowness. As for Winnie’s slide from champion of justice to crime boss, complete with glass of liquor and backed by her notorious security muscle, the movie uses it for dramatic effect but hedges when it comes to holding her accountable. It does, however, give Hudson a ballad to belt out over the closing credits.”

The last word goes to the AV Club, the excellent arts review section of The Onion:  “… Throughout, the events of Winnie’s life are just pretext for Hudson’s next big costume change, and the shifts in sartorial style are the closest the movie comes to character development …  Poor Hudson tries to live up to both the character and the clothes, but she isn’t anywhere near assertive enough a screen presence; whenever she’s supposed to be rallying a crowd or shouting down her oppressors she looks painfully aware of her own inadequacy.”

Instead of going to TD Jakes for help, the producers should just have asked for Tyler Perry to speak in tongues and lay hands on them.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.