A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Starting with crane shots soaring over a sun-burnished African plain as lush orchestral and choral music ascends on the soundtrack, "Winnie Mandela" initially promises little more than slick hagiography suitable for the Hallmark Channel. But by the time it ends 100 minutes later, Darrell Roodt's film has delved into some thorny historical territory, creating a compelling and credible portrait of a controversial woman.
With reports of the 95-year-old Nelson Mandela's fragile health appearing almost daily on American TV, and the Weinstein Company's biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" slated for release later in the fall, we seem to be in a Mandela moment. If so, Roodt's account of a woman who went from being idolized as "Mother of the Nation" to scorned as a criminal gang leader deserves a place in the reconsiderations of South Africa's astonishing transition from apartheid tyranny to multi-ethnic democracy.
As Roodt tells it, that revolution's most famous female leader was born to be a scrapper. The sixth daughter of a village teacher aching for a son, she decides to play the male role and becomes adept beating at stick-fighting. There's nothing masculine, though, about the grown Winnie (Jennifer Hudson), who goes to college in the city and attracts the attention of Mandela (Terrence Howard), a young lawyer already gaining fame and provoking the authorities with his demands for racial equality.
Even before she and Nelson become a serious item, Winnie surprises her friends and colleagues by turning down a chance to study in the U.S. in order to be a social worker in Soweto. Once the two wed, their commitment to their causes (his soon becomes hers) is tested in increasingly severe ways. The two are under seemingly constant surveillance by cops led by one De Vries (Elias Koteas in a commendably restrained performance), a steely nemesis who plays like a composite of what must have been a small army of officials assigned to harass and derail the Mandelas.