Sometimes it can be rather strangely said, that it’s a miracle when a particular film even exists, warts and all. And this could not be more true about Darrell J. Roodt’s South African inspirational biopic, Winnie Mandela.
So rather than minutely dissecting everything that’s far too sketchy or illogical about this screen portrait – touching on the both tragic and triumphant lives of that historic couple leading the tremendously courageous and complex struggle to liberate apartheid South Africa – let’s just cut to the chase, so to speak. And talk about what really matters in this immensely important and inspiring movie.
Jennifer Hudson somehow manages to fill the enormous shoes of Winnie Mandela – wife and comrade in arms of once officially reviled revolutionary leader and subsequent former South African President Nelson Mandela (less effectively and awkwardly depicted by Terrence Howard) – over those terrible oppressive decades. And a towering historical figure despite her errors, and charges pertaining to South Africa’s civil war violence that have been leveled against her.
Though how the right wing apartheid government incited civil war and may have even framed her, is not – and in fact never is – part of any cinematic record tracing those years. Along with that other persistent elephant in the room – in fact plaguing Western cinema in general – the Marxist roots of the South African mass struggle fueling the militant African National Congress in the vanguard of that insurgency, and the Mandelas themselves.
South African filmmaker Darrell J. Roodt has said of his probe into this brave but eventually broken relationship based on Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob’s biography Winnie Mandela: A Life: “Most importantly, I wanted to focus on the beautiful and tragic love story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, that was crushed by what history did to them.” Which is really when this rough around the edges work is at its very best, and a groundbreaking perspective on the personal versus political in movies. In contrast to the conventional tendency to admonish characters – real and otherwise, and women who are also mothers in particular – who take time away from their families to change the world.
A multi-tasking mother and freedom fighter, Mandela is admirably presented as seeing no difference or division between the two, and the plight of all children of the nation. And as such, she is eternally bestowed with the title of Mother Of The Nation. Initially conveyed to her, smuggled via a note in her prison excrement bucket, while confined and tortured in a solitary hellhole for eighteen months.
And though the Creative Workers Union, South Africa’s version of the Screen Actors Guild, mounted a protest against the film for putting foreign actors like Hudson in the starring roles, there is something seemingly unanticipated, that just magically works. And perhaps it’s the tension of Hudson’s own youthful initiation into the acting world along with an unfamiliar culture, that fuses with Winnie Mandela’s own story of a somewhat mystified provincial girl, abruptly and emotionally swept into the role of fierce leader. And without any ideological background or life script to guide her.
Along with Hudson’s gift – which may have amazed and inspired her as well – to spontaneously radiate resolve, determination and unwavering conviction, and breathe vivid life into this provocative portrait. Even while madness precipitated by her imprisonment and persecution, threatens to destroy her at every turn. And that on the contrary much to the frustration of the government torturers, ‘They have only made me stronger.’
Which returns full circle back to the critique of the production with far too much on its plate, and its many imperfections. And those flaws upstaged by the revelations and moments of consciousness, in deciphering the many defining ingredients of human struggle on this planet. And with the emblematic slogan in the film that encapsulates this narrative and this historical moment in time, ‘Strike a woman, and you strike a rock.’
And which leads to anticipation of Roodt’s next dramatic biopic project, Robeson. About that towering and unsung tragic American activist and martyr to McCarthyism in this country during the middle of the last century. If Roodt was getting warmed up for this exceedingly controversial subject with Winnie Mandela, he will surely be up to the task.