‘Winnie Mandela’: The Sound of Silence

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

Screenshot of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela
Screenshot of Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela

(The Root) — In the eponymous biopic Winnie Mandela, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson has mastered a new art form: emoji acting. With a stilted script, distracting soundtrack and costume changes rivaling Liberace’s, Hudson’s Winnie has little to do in the movie except look at things.

Winnie Mandela, which opens Friday, is the first of two films arriving in theaters this year that feature the saga of South Africa’s iconic leader and his devoted wife. The other film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and starring Idris Elba as the South African revolutionary and Naomie Harris as Winnie — follows the couple’s struggle to end apartheid from his point of view. With Winnie Mandela, based on a 2005 biography, director Darrell Roodt has an opportunity to tell her side of the story.

Winnie Mandela opens predictably with panoramic views of the South African countryside, just in case the audience was unsure where the film is set. As a familiar chorus of South African vocals made mainstream by Disney’s The Lion King reaches full volume, we take an “It’s a Small World” boat ride through village life. There are cows and cow herders, traditional garb and a postcard-perfect sunrise. It’s all beautiful, for sure, but in the most synthetic way possible. A precursor to the next 107 minutes.

The first 18 years or so of Winnie’s life are squeezed into the tiny suitcase she takes with her to the big city. All we learn of her early years is that her father wished she were a boy and that she inevitably sought his approval. Then in the next scene, she’s fully grown and on her way to Johannesburg. So far Winnie has uttered 10 lines, 12 tops. 

There are certain recognizable buzz words for bad movies — “overwrought,” “made for TV,” “corny” — and all of these apply to Winnie Mandela in any given scene, but what’s most striking about the film isn’t its sappiness, but its silence. Winnie is a woman to whom amazing things happen but whose own motives are amazingly unclear.

She gets a full scholarship to a university in Boston but rejects it in favor of becoming the first black social worker in Soweto. She meets a young lawyer and activist named Nelson Mandela (played by Terrence Howard) at a bus stop, but the meeting — arguably the defining moment of her life — doesn’t seem all that knee-weakening or earth-shattering.

“I am very glad that you were not born a boy,” Nelson tells Winnie in a line that’s supposed to be passionate. Soon the two will be dancing the waltz at their wedding. It’s a stunning snapshot — with Winnie in a white gown, Nelson in a suit and Winnie’s family in traditional tribal dress as a phonograph plays scratchy classical music in the middle of the countryside. But beautiful as it may be, what Winnie is thinking about this whirlwind romance is anybody’s guess.

In one of the most successful scenes in the film, the police show up on the Mandelas’ wedding night. Officers bust into their tiny two-room house and proceed to cause Tasmanian devil-like havoc. Colonel de Vries (played by Elias Koteas), the man who will become Winnie’s nemesis, discovers a piece of wedding cake carefully saved in wax paper and takes a bite. It’s an obvious but nevertheless effective metaphor for what is to come. For decades, the government will be taking huge bites out of the Mandelas’ love story.