I've always loved films involving history, but I've always struggled with those more biographical in nature when they're centered on a single person. Mostly, I tend to believe ‘no man is an island, and that means there are usually an awful lot of others he meets along the way who contribute to whatever legacy he builds. Does that make his claim to said legacy fraudulent? Of course it doesn't; it's just that I've rarely seen an individual memoir-on-film truly measure up a single life if it doesn't account for those additional influences along the way.
So imagine how impossibly difficult it might be to capture an account of Winnie Mandela, especially given the fact that her husband Nelson led an equally captivating set of experiences? No doubt, all involved trusted this was going to be difficult, and, in the final estimation, I'm not certain WINNIE MANDELA gets all that close to the mark with its mostly serviceable performances.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,' then read on …)
Winnie Mandela (played by a miscast Jennifer Hudson) stays true to the causes she supports with her husband, Nelson (a suitable Terrence Howard). Yet, once she finds him imprisoned for life, Mrs. Mandela realizes that she must add one more campaign to her already involved life: to work for his release. As there's an entire culture standing against her, she knows it won't be easy, but, throughout her efforts, she was awarded the name ‘the Mother of a Nation' by those she inspired.
WINNIE MANDELA isn't a great film. Also, it isn't a bad film – rather, I'd like to think that this feature at 107 minutes is vastly too short. While I'm not aware of all the nuances of the personal history involving both Nelson and Winnie Mandela, I still don't doubt that there's enough ‘history' that could fill up a mini-series easily. And that's the problem here: much of it feels abbreviated, truncated, or just too incomplete. In fact, the motion picture largely plays out like a highlight reel; the flavor of true experience – the struggle against insurmountable odds – only shows up occasionally, such as during the lady's incarceration.
Sadly, casting Ms. Hudson as that "Mother of a Nation" probably hindered the production as well. Never does she display the gravitas needed to convince audiences (or at least this viewer) of the passion behind her convictions; instead, she goes from one incident to the next, along with an accent that remains about as inconsistent as possible. To her credit, she musters a few great moments – such as in the aforementioned prison period – but that's not enough to hoist the weight of this world on to one woman's shoulders.
Is it entirely improbable that a major motion picture would forego hiring legitimate talent in lieu of bringing in rank amateurs in the make-up department? I ask this because despite this story spanning multiple decades the grooming staff quite literally couldn't make Hudson age in the slightest. Were they told not to? Was this some macabre creative decision? Or did the actress pull a ‘diva' move and demand she appear wrinkle-free as even an aged Winnie? I hope that wasn't the case as Hudson's last glimpse in the film feels as if it's almost mockery; she's clearly in a fat suit – and not the good kind – the likes of which are generally reserved for Eddie Murphy fart-joke comedies. Heck, even Howard's last shot – his Mandela is sitting in a chair while wearing one of the pacifist's signature bold (and colorful) prints – is staged in such a way to nearly evoke parody instead of a respectful final image.
I've no doubt that there's a truly great story to be told about the Mandelas joint and separate struggles. Rest assured: this isn't it.
WINNIE MANDELA (2011) is produced by Ironwood Films, Equinoxe Films, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, Movie Central, The Movie Network, National Empowerment Fund, and TDJ Enterprises / New Dimensions Entertainment. DVD distribution is being handled through RLJ Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is an English-spoken-language film, but there are sections of it spoken in Xhosa with English subtitles. As is often the case when these smaller releases find a release, it's lean on extras: there's only a single one – a brief making of short – and I certainly would've liked to know more about these two very influential AND controversial people.
MODESTLY RECOMMENDED. WINNIE MANDELA isn't an awful film. Rather, it's awfully constructed, awfully costumed, and simplistically made, reducing two noble characters to more-or-less caricatures who seemingly leap from one didactic yet turbulent moment to the next. The story here doesn't feel organic so much as it does the final edit culled together from a shooting script that made mincemeat of what should've been two grand filets. However, maybe this one is a learning lesson best chalked up to biting off more than you can chew; Hudson is adequate and Howard is palatable, but together they never muster enough chemistry to bring the complexities of these people and the times they shared to cinema life.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of WINNIE MANDELA by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more