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

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.