With few acting credits to her name, and most of them supporting parts, Jennifer Hudson might not be your first candidate to handle a character whose story is so rich, substantial, and famously important as that of Winnie Mandela. The Mandelas have earned no shortage of cinematic attention — later this year, Idris Elba will headline his own Nelson Mandela biopic (a project that is earning a crescendo of attention). But the daunting task of portraying the indisputably iconic figure is not one that falls beyond Hudson’s reach. In Winnie Mandela, a biographical film by South African director Darrell Roodt, Hudson is the qualitative stand-out.
Jumping sharply from one major point in Winnie’s life to another, the script seems more focused on paying tribute to the booming beats of the woman’s history than it is to delivering a fluid, cohesive story. With figures like Winnie and her husband Nelson (played in this production by Terrence Howard), it seems like an understandably frantic task to pack every influential bit into the 107-minute runtime, for fear of disrespecting their legacy. However, when the Mandelas begin to feel less like dimensional characters and more like textbook entries, the endeavor actually does a disservice to their humanistic plight. But luckily, the film never falls too far in this regard, thanks largely to the wonders worked by Hudson.
Again, you might not expect someone known best as a professional singer to be able to handle the meat of Winnie Mandela. But she manages both a vigilant strength and a pervasive compassion, laying claim to every scene all the while operating in a vat of deft chemistry with Howard. As the years pass for Winnie, Hudson too grows, handling the evolution of the character with impressive tact. The Winnie we see in the later chapters is a different woman, sure, but one firmly planted in the Winnie we meet at the start of the film — one brought to fight neighborhood boys and adhere eyes to her school books every waking minute.
While writer/director Roodt does not inject his feature with the sort of color and vivacity that a story about the Mandelas does indubitably warrant, we’re rarely disengaged entirely, and that we owe to Hudson. Roodt might not have quite found the spirit of Winnie Mandela in his film, but Hudson found it in her performance.