Controversy is always a great magnet, and the International Black Film Festival of Nashville's finale to its 2013 Summer Film Series qualifies big in that regard. This Thursday, Sept. 5, IBFFN is showing South African director Darrell Roodt's Winnie Mandela, the 2011 biopic that's triggered spirited global discussion over multiple topics ranging from its accuracy to cinematic responsibility in casting.
Winnie Mandela had a hard time reaching the screen. After the rough cut was shown at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, it languished until being taken over by the Rev. T.D. Jakes' company TDJ Enterprises/Film Bridge International in April 2012. Image Entertainment acquired the rights in May and will give it a limited theatrical run starting Friday, but IBFFN's presentation is its only advance Tennessee screening.
Roodt's film co-stars Jennifer Hudson in the title role with Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela, which gives the movie the pedigree of an Oscar winner and an Oscar nominee in the two leads. Ironically, though, those casting decisions triggered protests from the Creative Workers Union, South Africa's version of the Screen Actors Guild, which severely attacked Roodt for putting foreign actors in major roles. Winnie Mandela also went public with her displeasure about not being consulted about the filming, though she was careful not to include Hudson in those comments.
An additional issue was Roodt and co-screenwriter Andre Pieterse's use of the Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob biography Winnie Mandela: A Life as their source material. Critics attacked the book as too reverential and uncritical of its subject, particularly in the period after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
While the production suffers from an overall lack of depth, Hudson does a credible job enacting Winnie Mandela's journey from her rural origins to a position of leadership. She shows effective restraint during scenes depicting Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, and the struggles she faced trying to continue her husband's battle against apartheid during his long confinement. The film portrays them as a couple once very much in love, but ultimately torn apart by apartheid's brutal realities and their changing dispositions.
Oddly, despite its title, the opening hour deals more with Nelson Mandela than Winnie, which makes her a secondary figure in her own biopic. It's not until more than midway that Winnie emerges as a central, compelling figure. Howard is also solid in his role, though he'll no doubt suffer comparisons to rival screen Mandelas Morgan Freeman (in Invictus) and Idris Elba (in the upcoming Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).
But Roodt's decision to make this hagiography rather than an unsentimental look at a complex relationship means those seeking answers to tough questions won't find them in Winnie Mandela. He skirts over the 1988 kidnapping and murder of teenage activist Stompie Moeketsi by her bodyguards, reducing it to a speedbump in her life rather than the deeply disillusioning event it was to many of her supporters. He also dismisses any notions her infidelity played a major role in the dissolution of the Mandelas' marriage.
What success this earnest tribute has comes mostly from its acting, including Elias Koteas' impassioned portrayal of a dedicated police chief determined to sink both Mandelas. Just don't expect comprehensive political or personal history — that will have to wait for another film.
Winnie Mandela shows 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, at Manna From Heaven Dinner House, 3510 W. Hamilton Ave. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and admission is $10. And watch ibffnashville.com for information about the upcoming festival, Oct. 31-Nov. 3.
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