Being a mother is a hard enough job, but being saddled with the title “Mother of the Nation” is an unimaginable pressure, a pressure that Jennifer Hudson must have felt to some small degree playing the title character in Winnie Mandela. When her husband, Nelson (Terrence Howard), is imprisoned for organizing anti-Apartheid protests, Winnie keeps up the struggle for freedom in his stead—but, forced to deal with the real world while Nelson is sidelined as a martyr for 27 years, she becomes increasingly radicalized. Compressing a half-century’s worth of history, Winnie Mandela makes liberal use of biopic clichés, such as newspaper headlines screaming exposition like “World Leaders Condemn Winnie Mandela” (it’s a wonder the papers don’t spin as they approach the camera), or the constant presence of villainous policeman Colonel de Vries (Elias Koteas), whose life’s work seems to consist of either watching Winnie from a distance in public or listening to her on wiretaps. A story that probably could have been told better as a miniseries, the film’s main strength is its performances. Howard brings the necessary quiet dignity to Nelson, Koteas wisely underplays what could have been a mustache-twirling role, and most importantly, Hudson embodies a woman who grew up fighting boys with sticks, and never really stopped.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2013