(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.
Though the specter of apartheid is always in the background of Winnie Mandela, it never truly hits home until the wedding-cake scene. Other moments, like when Winnie and friends head to a department store to try on a dress, are too easy to fast-forward past mentally. You already know there's going to be trouble, so when the store manager tells Winnie to take the dress off because "you people don't bathe," the blow is less powerful.
Add to all that the fact that Winnie rarely gets the chance to actually speak for herself, and the film becomes less of a revealing biography and more of a quickly written school report.
"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.