With his recent passing, Nelson Mandel, and the country of South Africa, have certainly been in the hearts and minds of many. This affords an opportunity for a deeper examination of the man's life, the hardships and struggles he endured and, of course, the legacy he leaves behind. Mandela's story is without a doubt one that Hollywood and filmmakers the world over likely long to tell, but, as is usually the case, there are incredibly fascinating stories to be told about the people who stood beside such iconic figures, and became symbols of the same pursuit of freedom and justice in their own right.
To its credit, 'Winnie Mandela' is certainly an earnest attempt at doing just that, as a film that takes a look at the wife of Nelson Mandela, from her early childhood as the daughter of a tribal chief, to her enduring hardship stemming from her marriage (both in being separated from her husband and abuses from the pro-apartheid authorities), to her eventual near-radicalization and involvement with the death of a young boy who was alleged to be a government informant. Co-writer and director Darrell J. Root, endeavors to take a sincere, heartfelt look at the life of an important figure, but his film's flimsy narrative structure is further weakened by improper casting choices and a rote screenplay that transforms complex, compelling, real-life figures into two-dimensional characters that either deliver untold amounts of suffering, or are destined to endure it with little or no meaning attached beyond the implied historical significance that comes from the film's eponymous character.
In addition to putting too much on the plate of a miscast Jennifer Hudson, the film relies too heavily on the assumption that events depicted here are common knowledge and therefore require little in the way of explanation or set-up. But 'Winnie Mandela' also fails to point out any reason as to why these events are important, or what the real ramifications ultimately became. The movie is content to run down a checklist of events, denoting the progression of time with unconvincing facial prosthetics and the banal, amateurish use of drawn-up newspaper clippings to convey import and signify some semblance of realism.
But for a film that is intended to be about Winnie Mandela, it struggles to separate the narrative thread of its main character from that of her husband's. As Nelson Mandela, Terrence Howard does a fine job, although much of his character relies on him selling a level of passion and emotion that the actor simply isn't able to convey, considering the quality of the screenplay he's working from. Howard isn't necessarily miscast in the role of Nelson – rather, the film's script and story isn't up to the task of developing a secondary narrative around the man who is essentially the driving force behind the story. As such, Winnie's accomplishments early on – like the banal recitation of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ('Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day) – are intended to give the character some semblance of depth, and to explore the power of her intelligence, but most of them simply come off as trite examples with little connotation to the overall story.
That surface-level exploration continues throughout the film as Winnie, emboldened by her husband's incarceration as well as her own, becomes a powerful anti-apartheid voice in her own right. The trouble is, almost all of her later accomplishments are indicated through simple exposition, rather than through actually seeing them happen or being shown why they matter. Why develop a story around an individual's accomplishments when you can simply show some mock-up of a newspaper clipping, or put a cheesy black and white filter on some dirtied-up footage in a hackneyed attempt at progressing the story?
Furthermore, the thinly drawn supporting characters do little to give the story any weight. Elias Koteas is completely wasted as a pro-apartheid cop who is so villainous he might as well be depicted cackling maniacally in every scene while stroking a white cat. As far as characterization goes, there are only two modes: irrepressibly good or appallingly bad. Nobody here is seen as simply neutral, or capable of demonstrating any sort of variation in their emotions and convictions. Everyone who is a racist is willing to kill for what they believe in and everyone who isn't is so hopelessly good they're destined for sainthood. At one point, Winnie spends nearly a year in prison with only a colony of ants to keep her company. There's not a single sympathetic or understanding person in legal system, apparently; guards and policeman are so hilariously exaggerated in their capacity for evil, they are one step away from holding the world ransom for one billion dollars while holding a pinky to their lips. There is no nuance to these characters, just broad strokes of racism and villainy or beleaguered goodness; the characters, like the film, are free of subtlety, nuance, or any true sense of motivation.
But what's worse is the manner in which the film's titular character is portrayed. Though she's in nearly every scene, there is never any evidence of what effect her efforts are having outside of making more and more enemies. Furthermore, there's never any idea of what she is thinking, or how she is coping with her ascendance in the political arena outside of a few clips showing her making speeches, or watching while she willfully antagonizes her enemies. In that sense, 'Winnie Mandela' fails to recognize that all it's doing is setting up the circumstances that made its character important, but never follows through with showing why she matters.
Ultimately, 'Winnie Mandela' labors to find the voice of its main character in a narrative that should have been nothing but that. Hudson never seems to rise above putting on a voice and a stern, solemn face, but in her defense, the film's script never asks her to do anything more than that anyway. In its exploration of a divisive and yet very compelling character in the history of a troubled nation, the film never quite manages to find the significance it was looking for. It's as though the filmmakers were content merely circling the edges of a conversation, rather than jumping in and saying something meaningful.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats,
'Winnie Mandela' comes from Image entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The disc itself contains a few previews before going to the top menu, but they can all be skipped. Aside from the feature, the disc only contains a making of featurette.
'Winnie Mandela' is presented with a very clean, bright, but sometimes too sterile image derived from a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer. The image does a terrific job in presenting the film with plenty of fine detail in terms of facial features and fine textures in clothing and background elements, but that level of clarity also undermines the film's shoddy prosthetics work, by making Hudson and Howard's transformation into older versions of Winnie and Nelson Mandela look out of place, and somewhat silly. The work in this portion of the film is bad enough the filmmakers should have just done without prosthetics all together.
Additionally, while the image is clean and free of noise or elements that might mar the picture, the final product is also incredibly sterile – there's no life in the cinematography, or the look of the film, and as such, the transfer winds up looking equally devoid of feeling. This only helps to further the already persistent problem the films has in terms of being able to convincingly convey feeling and sentiment, so there's no favor done on that behalf. Still, the image is pristine, and the colors are bright. There's also a superb level of contrast on display that generates a strong, but cold image.
While the picture here is technically very good, it is hindered by the film's mechanical sensibilities and as a result, it struggles to feel as good as it looks.
The film has been given a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that has little to do but present dialogue clearly and display some range with regard to the film's score. There are some instances where the mix is asked to deliver an immersive environment or atmosphere by demonstrating the din of a crowd of demonstrators, or the calamitous ring of gunfire, and, to its credit, the mix does a terrific job with these elements. The only problem is, it is asked to add that extra depth – whatever it may be – so infrequently that some of the film tends to sound a little one-dimensional.
For the most part, the sound is front heavy; dialogue is primarily driven through the center channel, while effects and score come from the front right and left. There is some extension of both through the rear channels from time to time, which enhances things, but for the most part it is a very direct sounding audio mix. There is good balance between the multiple elements, though, and the sound manages to capture subtle differences in the actors' voices and accents with little effort. The score sounds bright and effervescent, and does a nice job of adding to the film without being a distracting element.
The mix here sounds quite good, but because it isn't asked to do much it feels merely adequate.
'Winnie Mandela' is one of those films that leaves you with the sense things would have been better under the direction of filmmakers with a clearer vision and who were more skilled at the complex art of portraying a historical figure with more finesse than pointing the camera at some newspaper clippings. Normally, when a film puts forth this little effort in creating a compelling narrative, it's just a silly movie. But when the film in question does the same while attempting to represent a tale with actual significance, it's like putting a spotlight on any and all shortcomings. The film comes with nice picture and sound, but little in the way of interesting supplements. As such, if you're curious, it's probably worth a rental at best.