Mother of a Notion

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:02

Winnie Mandela's big screen white wash

Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela's first wife, keeper of his flame during his years of incarceration before falling to the vicissitudes of South African revolution and her own ego, should be a great role for a real actress yet the part went to singer Jennifer Hudson who won an Oscar for Dreamgirls--part of the Motion Picture Academy's late liberal congratulation of its own sentimental progressivism-a hypocritical notion for an industry that continues to ignore the struggles of dedicated actresses of color.

Despite all the colors in the Winnie role (naïve young daughter, ardent wife, defiant prisoner, principled activist, forceful leader, desperate despot, resentful martyr, rueful underdog), the movie Winnie Mandela (originally released in 2011 but just now opening in the U.S.) presents a nearly pallid historical figure. South African director Darrell Roodt moves through the life of the woman considered "The Mother of the Nation," yet can't overcome Western film culture's basic indifference to the diverse moods and complexity of Black women.

Taking on a role already portrayed on film by Alfre Woodard, Tina Lifford and Sophie Okenedo, Hudson lacks the varied emotional subtlety required to make a memorable characterization. She works at it but her bovine features and placid beauty don't spark, even during Winnie's stalwart speeches, moments of anger or the ought-to-be poignant, ironic, torture-scene recitation of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" When Hudson isn't soloing diva-style, she just seems sullen. But I don't want to make this about Hudson; her attempts to break from being cloudy and dull are related to a larger problem:

When trained Black actresses lose opportunities to showbiz anomalies (singers, models, kids) the experiences of Black women get diminished rather than memorably dramatized--compounding the issue of roles that might be misconceived to begin with. A list of casualties precede Hudson's Winnie but the misfortune is particularly felt in Winnie Mandela when a lifetime of desire, ambition, bravery, bewilderment and deep, deep regret simply passes by as a nightmare pageant. (An end-credit montage of the actual Winnie's piercing eyes lays waste to film's drama.)

The extraordinary act of Nelson Mandela, following his release from prison and rise to Presidency in the new post-Apartheid South Africa, divorcing himself from his controversial disgraced wife, offers a profusion of moral paradoxes. Only the Macbeths are parallel. Yet, aside from Terrence Howard's glamour and skill as Nelson (sexier than Jeffrey Wright's MLK in Boycott), the remarkable personal-political moment where Mandela declares "I do not part from her with recriminations but embrace her with all the love and affection I have felt for her since the moment I first met her" is bland as Hudson's Afro-hauteur.

Winnie Mandela's failure betokens a larger crisis. Its weak though incendiary politics are nearly as insipid as Lee Daniels' The Butler. This story of South African struggle is less familiar and so less tiresome than how the U.S. Civil Rights struggle has been sentimentalized by mainstream media, yet this iconic duo is as non-threatening as The Butler. (When Howard wears an afro with a part down the center and a near Van Dyke beard he has a radical, militant air later assigned to secondary thugs in Winnie's football team-army). This is consistent with the Obama era idea of passive, ineffectual Black leadership. Strange that this unchallenging notion pleases viewers (white and Black) who are susceptible to Hollywood suasion, no matter how meretricious.

Just imagine the Winnie Mandela that Erykah Badu might have flaunted. Instead, this era of film industry appeasement (where the mere idea of putting a Black story on screen suckers the public) is unfortunately epitomized by various Black female betrayals--from Myrlie Evers' patronizing endorsement of The Help to Alice Walker's recent tasteless, self-pitying praise of The Butler and this sad, tepid Winnie Mandela.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair