Like many a biopic before it, "Winnie Mandela" shoehorns an exceptional life into the standard template of a highlights reel, lurching from one Important Moment to the next. The sense of what's important is often skewed in this portrait of South Africa's onetime "mother of the nation"; Darrell Roodt's feature reduces complex political history to the role of backdrop in the story of a marriage. Stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard struggle against a production that's more stage-managed than dramatically cohesive.
The screenplay by André Pieterse and Roodt follows Winnie from village schoolgirl to white-gloved politician's wife to popular anti-apartheid activist and, finally, disgraced leader. Its jarring transition from adulation to measured disgust occurs without benefit of character insight.
For most of the film, and as the soaring score makes emphatically clear, Winnie is a figure marked for greatness. Studying social work in Johannesburg, she catches the eye of up-and-coming politician Nelson Mandela, with Howard putting across some charmingly bold flirting.
Hudson has strong moments during Winnie's soul-testing solitary confinement, and she communicates her steeliness, fire and commitment. But unlike costar Elias Koteas — whose relentless high-ranking cop is the face of all that's evil in the apartheid regime — Hudson hasn't the acting chops to suggest complexities despite the material's shallowness.
As for Winnie's slide from champion of justice to crime boss, complete with glass of liquor and backed by her notorious security muscle, the movie uses it for dramatic effect but hedges when it comes to holding her accountable. It does, however, give Hudson a ballad to belt out over the closing credits.
MPAA rating: R for some violence and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Playing: In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times