'Winnie Mandela': The Sound of Silence

The lackluster film, starring Jennifer Hudson, fails to give the South African icon a compelling voice.

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"For a movie about her, she's managed to say five words this entire time," whispered someone sitting next to me, a frustrated exaggeration that still hit the mark.

When Winnie finds out her husband has been arrested and could possibly face the death penalty, she just stares off into the distance. When Nelson tells her that he won't appeal the case if he is in fact sentenced to death -- effectively martyring himself -- again she just stares.

Not until her husband's imprisonment does Winnie finally seem to find her vocal chords.

"The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become," she tells members of the African National Congress Women's League as she rises to prominence in the anti-apartheid movement. But just as quickly as she ascends, Winnie dives. After spending nearly 18 months in solitary confinement, Winnie claims she's been made "stronger," but that strength quickly turns into radicalism. Eventually she's implicated in the murder of a young boy, who was one of her personal bodyguards, from the Mandela United Football Club.

Is all that moving too fast for you? Too bad. The film flies through Winnie's most controversial years at warp speed, and again we're left wondering (and later Googling) about another defining moment in the life of the "mother of a nation."

When the film clunks to the end of its journey, Winnie is back to playing the strong but silent type. Her husband is finally freed, and she says nothing. Winnie, whose political image is past saving, is effectively ousted from the ANC and denied the first ladyship. She says even less -- if that's possible. And finally when a panelist at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission asks Winnie to give her own version of what led to her downfall, she hesitates.

"Mrs. Mandela, you may speak," says the commissioner. She doesn't, and the credits roll.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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