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A serviceable life story

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Winnie Mandela Jennifer Hudson

Nelson Mandela Terrence Howard

Colonel de Vries Elias Koteas

Mary Botha Wendy Crewson

RLJ Entertainment presents a film directed by Darrell J. Roodt and written by Roodt and Andre Pieterse. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for some violence and language). Opens Friday at South Barrington 30, River East 21 and Northbrook Court 14.

Updated: October 7, 2013 10:54AM

If you don’t remember hearing much about a Winnie Mandela biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, that’s probably because it was filmed more than three years ago, showcased to negative reaction at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, given a brief release in Canada in 2012 — and then just drifted into the Library of Forgotten Movies, which is filled with hundreds of titles that never get widespread theatrical play.

Based on the reviews from Toronto and the Hollywood buzz over the years, word on “Winnie Mandela” was not good, to put it mildly.

Rescued by Bishop T.D. Jakes and Image Entertainment, “Winnie Mandela” finally comes to U.S. theaters. And here’s the news: It’s not so bad after all.

For the first 15 minutes or so, the film indeed lived down to low expectations, and I thought I might have to find a place for it on my list of the worst movies of 2013. But once we got past the hagiographic depictions of young Winnie’s life, “Winnie Mandela” turned into a serviceable if sometimes overwrought biography, with solid performances and the courage to spotlight not only the heroics but the appalling misdeeds committed by the iconic Ms. Mandela.

What a life. The sixth daughter of a teacher who only wanted a son, Winnie not only had to battle the racist apartheid government of South Africa, she had to overcome rampant sexism within her own culture.

Director and co-writer Darrell James Roodt relies heavily on the Biopic Playbook, never missing the opportunity to invoke a cliched moment, from Winnie’s meet-cute with the young activist Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard) to her imprisonment, during which she befriends insects and talks to them in metaphors. (Whether a bird or mouse or cockroach, we’re always treading in dangerous territory when a sympathetic prisoner befriends a small creature.)

After a beautiful wedding only slightly marred by the presence of South African police lurking on the fringes, taking down license plate numbers like the cops in “The Godfather,” Winnie and Nelson don’t even have the luxury of a honeymoon before the authorities break down their door and roust them out of bed in the middle of the night.

It’s impossible to overstate the blind hatred that fueled apartheid, but it IS possible to overplay depictions of such evil. The usually reliable Elias Koteas plays the oppressive, brutal Colonel de Vries as a combination of Javert from “Les Miserables” and Amon Goeth from “Schindler’s List.” He’s obsessed with the Mandelas, and he’ll stop at nothing to put them away, often horrifying even his colleagues with the depth of his loathing.

(Every time something bad happens in “Winnie Mandela,” there’s a musical cue that’s about as subtle as the score of a Looney Tunes short. This film has one of the most annoyingly saccharine and intrusive scores in recent memory.)

After Nelson Mandela is convicted of treason and sabotage and sent to prison in the early 1960s, this becomes Winnie’s movie through and through, with Hudson sporting a dazzling array of period-piece fashion that often seems incongruous with the brutality and bloodshed of the time. (Even when Winnie’s home has been torched, she gingerly steps through the rubble while sporting an impeccable, flashy outfit from the “Austin Powers” fashion catalog and a trendy hairstyle. Really?)

Winnie’s saintly, heroic image suffers some serious bruises once she aligns with the Mandela United Football Club, alleged by everyone from the South African military to Nelson himself to be nothing more than thugs. The evil Major de Vries just sits back and cackles as Winnie’s henchmen turn on anyone suspected of being a spy. In one chilling midnight raid in search of a young boy suspected of being a traitor, the Football Club storms into a priest’s quarters in the middle of night — just like de Vries and his henchmen terrorized Winnie and her own children.

Winnie Mandela expressed her displeasure with a movie project on which she wasn’t consulted, and a number of other South Africans were dismayed American actors were cast in the key roles. But Hudson and Howard do admirable jobs with the accents, even when saddled with some latex age makeup that looks like, well, latex age makeup. At times Hudson goes big and showy when it’s not necessary, and she’s less convincing when portraying Winnie’s cold, ruthless side. Overall, though, it’s a solid performance.

Thanks in large part to the enormous sacrifices and inspirational leadership provided by Nelson and Winnie Mandela over decades, apartheid was of course finally struck down. But by the time a free Nelson Mandela assumed the mantle of president of South Africa, he and Winnie had been separated for two years. In subsequent years, Winnie has voiced some cruelly blunt opinions about her husband.

Although “Winnie Mandela” takes dramatic liberties with the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and murder of that 14-year-old suspected to be an informant against Winnie and the Football Club, the film does touch on at least some of the scandals in Winnie’s later life. After taking its time (and rightfully so) showing us all the obstacles Winnie had to overcome, all the great things she did, all the suffering she endured, the movie rushes through the last 15-plus years of her life and tries, unsuccessfully, to end on a note convincing us Nelson and Winnie’s love story endures.

For young people who don’t know this story but might want to see a movie starring Jennifer Hudson, “Winnie Mandela” is a start. Incomplete, but a start nonetheless.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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