Remember when Darrell Roodt’s “Winnie” 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)–she wasn’t consulted–and threatened to sue the producers. But 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. And 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. It is worth just indenting Scott MacDonald’s full review here:
Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson as the wife of Nelson Mandela, could’ve been a new camp classic if the material weren’t quite so relentlessly noble. Director Darrell Roodt (Sarafina!) and screenwriter Andre Pieterse take their cues less from middlebrow Oscar fare like Gandhi and Invictus and more from glossy “a star is born” vehicles like Mahogany and Evita. 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. Early on, to signal that Winnie is still young and naïve, Hudson wears trim Coco Chanel—style knee-length dresses and modest cloche hats; once radicalized, she sports flamboyant kaftans and vibrantly colored dashikis; and by the Black Power ’70s, she’s got a huge afro and an array of subtly flattering camo fatigues. 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.
Not that Hudson has any real opportunity to give a performance, what with Roodt and Pieterse trying to cram in all of Winnie’s significant life events. They begin in a small South African village with her awesome birth, which is depicted as just slightly less awesome than the birth of the Lion King. Then, with African choir exulting, Roodt jumps ahead a few years to find Winnie beating the boys at a traditional combat game involving swords made of sticks. It’s at this point that Pieterse’s amazingly terrible dialogue begins to assert itself:
Father: “Our tradition forbids girls to use the sticks!”
Little Winnie: “Some traditions are not fair! Please, allow me to fight!”
Father: “No, you’re a girl! We must respect our traditions!”
The dialogue doesn’t improve any once the adult performers (who include Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela) take over, and Roodt never stops rushing to the next vignette. Throughout, the average scene length is about 30 seconds; it’s as if the filmmakers feared actually having to dramatize events and settled for simply indicating them. Winnie Mandela is maybe the closest a movie has come to a series of commemorative plates.
If nothing else, the speed of events allows for some memorably hilarious moments, like the series of scenes in which Winnie is incarcerated for refusing to condemn her husband. By her seventh month in prison, she’s half mad, reciting Shakespeare sonnets—her favorite: “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”—and making friends with the ants in her cell. After a while, the prison matron bursts in, screams, “Stop singing!” and crushes all the ants with her boot. Much later, after Winnie has become a power-mad liability to the anti-apartheid cause, Hudson does her best drunk-and-alone-in-a-hotel-room scene, but she has to do it in a fat suit that makes her look like one of the Klumps. It all ends with Winnie confessing her sins at a Truth And Reconciliation Commission hearing, but instead of saying anything, she simply turns around in her chair and stares at the camera with her huge, dark sunglasses. Roodt fades to black, then lets the credits roll over Hudson singing a new Diane Warren tune, “Would You Bleed For Love?” It’s enough to make Evita look classy.
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.