Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
September 5, 2013
** (out of four)
In case Chicago native Jennifer Hudson’s performance didn’t sufficiently confirm her miscasting as South African president Nelson Mandela’s wife (it does), the end credits of “Winnie Mandela” distractingly roll with the Oscar-winning actress/singer (“Dreamgirls”) belting out a tune by hitmaker Diane Warren. Hey, better than Winnie performing a sold-out concert.
This superficial drama, filmed in 2010, primarily exists to applaud the icon, which didn’t keep the real Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from protesting the filmmakers’ refusal to let her consult. That choice is justified; productions about real people rarely feel objective when they serve as producers—or have you not seen “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? So it’s particularly odd that director/co-writer Darrell Roodt still appears reluctant to process South African history with any perspective or complexity. Obscured truth disrespects history, and a biopic without strong writing and acting isn’t much of anything.
For a film covering roughly six decades, “Winnie Mandela” has a short memory, frequently jumping 10 years at a time without filling in the gaps. Before Winnie goes to study in Johannesburg in 1953, her dad says his former disappointment over Winnie being his sixth daughter has become pride. And that’s the last we see of her family. Many years later, when she spends months and months in solitary confinement, makeup meant to make the resilient activist look dirty can’t hide her body’s lack of physical change. Though we don’t feel the prison time that’s passed for her husband, Nelson (Terrence Howard), he appears to have aged drastically, and she hasn’t at all. Toward the film’s end, when someone finally realized Winnie should look older, her puffy makeup makes you wonder if she was stung by a bee during a human-rights violations trial that the movie largely shrugs off.
Important historical events and figures are always worth remembering, but not with such a one-dimensional, earnest effort that’s been fairly criticized for casting American actors to raise its profile. “Winnie” is a movie about the fight against persecution that itself shies away from depicting hardship, though its few sequences of violence and oppression are appropriately chilly.
Adapting a biography of his subject, Roodt spends too much time talking about work being done and not enough on details, action and the country’s changing climate. Sadly, “Invictus” wasn’t very good either. Here’s hoping the upcoming “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba, favors depth over scope.
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