Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson as the wife of Nelson Mandela, could’ve been a new camp classic if the material weren’t quite so relentlessly noble. Director Darrell Roodt (Sarafina!) and screenwriter Andre Pieterse take their cues less from middlebrow Oscar fare like Gandhi and Invictus and more from glossy “a star is born” vehicles like Mahogany and Evita. Throughout, the events of Winnie’s life are just pretext for Hudson’s next big costume change, and the shifts in sartorial style are the closest the movie comes to character development. Early on, to signal that Winnie is still young and naïve, Hudson wears trim Coco Chanel—style knee-length dresses and modest cloche hats; once radicalized, she sports flamboyant kaftans and vibrantly colored dashikis; and by the Black Power ’70s, she’s got a huge afro and an array of subtly flattering camo fatigues. Poor Hudson tries to live up to both the character and the clothes, but she isn’t anywhere near assertive enough a screen presence; whenever she’s supposed to be rallying a crowd or shouting down her oppressors she looks painfully aware of her own inadequacy.
Not that Hudson has any real opportunity to give a performance, what with Roodt and Pieterse trying to cram in all of Winnie’s significant life events. They begin in a small South African village with her awesome birth, which is depicted as just slightly less awesome than the birth of the Lion King. Then, with African choir exulting, Roodt jumps ahead a few years to find Winnie beating the boys at a traditional combat game involving swords made of sticks. It’s at this point that Pieterse’s amazingly terrible dialogue begins to assert itself:
Father: “Our tradition forbids girls to use the sticks!”
Little Winnie: “Some traditions are not fair! Please, allow me to fight!”
Father: “No, you’re a girl! We must respect our traditions!”
The dialogue doesn’t improve any once the adult performers (who include Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela) take over, and Roodt never stops rushing to the next vignette. Throughout, the average scene length is about 30 seconds; it’s as if the filmmakers feared actually having to dramatize events and settled for simply indicating them. Winnie Mandela is maybe the closest a movie has come to a series of commemorative plates.
If nothing else, the speed of events allows for some memorably hilarious moments, like the series of scenes in which Winnie is incarcerated for refusing to condemn her husband. By her seventh month in prison, she’s half mad, reciting Shakespeare sonnets—her favorite: “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”—and making friends with the ants in her cell. After a while, the prison matron bursts in, screams, “Stop singing!” and crushes all the ants with her boot. Much later, after Winnie has become a power-mad liability to the anti-apartheid cause, Hudson does her best drunk-and-alone-in-a-hotel-room scene, but she has to do it in a fat suit that makes her look like one of the Klumps. It all ends with Winnie confessing her sins at a Truth And Reconciliation Commission hearing, but instead of saying anything, she simply turns around in her chair and stares at the camera with her huge, dark sunglasses. Roodt fades to black, then lets the credits roll over Hudson singing a new Diane Warren tune, “Would You Bleed For Love?” It’s enough to make Evita look classy.