Blu-ray Review: Winnie Mandela

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For those who paid any attention to this barely-released biopic, Winnie Mandela’s reputation precedes it. Though it premiered at Toronto Film Festival back in 2011, it sat unreleased until September, 2013, when it was unceremoniously sneaked out to 32 screens. It didn’t help that the film’s subject herself took issue with the production, understandably regarding it as an “insult” that she wasn’t consulted. The casting of American stars Jennifer Hudson (in the title role) and Terrence Howard (as the late Nelson Mandela, who passed away at age 95 on December 5, 2013) was questioned by some as well, who wondered why South African actors weren’t employed. Obviously, Hudson and Howard (the former an Oscar winner for Dreamgirls, the latter a nominee for Hustle & Flow) were selected for commercial reasons, but in retrospect it hardly mattered.

All of this begs the question: is Winnie Mandela worth your time now that it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD? The answer is absolutely yes—not because it’s a great movie, but because it earnestly tackles an epic story about a controversial historical figure that is worth telling. Despite a barrage of bad press and terrible reviews, this is an ambitious, well-produced film that boasts strong, impassioned work by Jennifer Hudson. However, in less than two hours the complexities of Mandela’s life are barely scratched. The horrors of her imprisonment (which included more than a year of solitary confinement), due to her anti-apartheid activism, feel almost glossed over. Director Darrell Roodt seems unable to effectively convey the harrowing dramatic weight of Mandela’s ordeal.

Winnie Mandela 3 (187x280).jpgRoodt also scripted (along with Andre Pieterse and Paul Ian Johnson), so it’s hard to let him off the hook and simply blame the writers. There’s a paint-by-numbers feel to the storytelling. Colonel de Vries (Elias Koteas) is our suitably dastardly villain, a character designed to embody the all-powerful white government that put both Nelson and Winnie behind bars for their efforts to end their nation’s policies of segregation and discrimination. Koteas is fine, admirably even, but Winnie Mandela needed a more fully-developed depiction of apartheid—something beyond a single, apparently fictional character at whom the audience is cued to hiss.

Still, if Winnie Mandela inspires anyone to seek out more detailed, authoritative sources of information about its subject’s life, the filmmakers’ efforts have been worthwhile. The basic outline of Winnie Mandela’s life is laid out, from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a father who desired a son, to the shock of her husband’s incarceration, to her emergence as a strident, radical political leader. As Nelson Mandela, Howard is of course sidelined for most of the film. The attempt to focus on the Mandela’s marriage feels like a balm intended to make the political aspects of the story more palatable for a wide audience. As a primer on the trials and tribulations of Mr. and Mrs. Mandela, the film works reasonably well. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for anything approaching a definitive story.

RLJ Entertainment’s Blu-ray presentation conveys all the richness of Mario Janelle’s beautiful 35mm cinematography. Every nuance of the atmospherically-lighted interior scenes is captured, offering lifelike and varied textures. Exteriors are often stunning, with the vibrant colors of nature always well defined in the film’s panoramic landscape shots. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is less remarkable, staying firmly anchored to the front channels for the most part, but completely acceptable in its balance of crisp dialogue and Laurent Eyquem’s score.

Winnie Mandela 2 (380x220).jpgThough not listed on the Blu-ray packaging, we do get a 22-minute featurette as the disc’s sole supplement. It’s typically promotional in nature, padded with too many clips from the movie, but at least it offers some interview footage from the primary cast and director.

Director Roodt and company have ultimately bitten off more than they can chew with Winnie Mandela, trying to squeeze Anne Marie du Preez’s biography Winnie Mandela: A Life into an hour and 47 minutes. It feels at times that they believed A-list actors and first-rate production values were enough, given the obvious import of the story. But in the end, those strong performances and excellent production values offer reason to check it out.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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