There are character arcs, and then there are hairpin turns.
You get used to it in the media, where political and public figures turn from hero to villain in absurdly short timeframes.
Winnie Mandela was one such figure -- "the Mother of the Nation" for most of the 27 years that her husband Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner by the Apartheid government of South Africa.
Suddenly, the narrative changed. We began hearing about horrifying internecine "necklace" murders in Soweto, many of them connected to Winnie's "football club" of African National Congress supporters. Suddenly, she was a villainess and alleged cold-blooded killer.
After Mandela was released, he was with his wife only briefly before their divorce was announced.
You expect more from a movie than the same abrupt hero-to-zero narrative you get from the news. But Winnie, South African Darrell Roodt's biopic, rests on merely serviceable portrayals of the Mandelas by Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson (although playing the quite-thin Winnie Mandela could be considered Hudson's triumphant Jenny Craig moment).
Any half-curious person would want to know how one goes from prim, rural-raised social to mob boss. It's the kind of complete 180-degree character turn that takes shows like Breaking Bad several seasons to convincingly and gradually portray.
Winnie, unfortunately, has only two gears -- saint and sinner. We meet her as a child, determined to overcome her father's disappointment over his brood of six girls by becoming the "boy" he never had. She beats the other boys at stick fighting, gets top marks and a U.S. scholarship offer (which she turns down because of a desire to help the poor).
Demur and only reluctantly social (her mixed-race group of friends has to practically drag her to dances), she is also initially resistant to the charms of the dashing young Mandela. But his social activism eventually reels her in, or whatever. A nuanced romance this isn't.
Standing like a glowering cloud over Nelson and Winnie's happiness is a villain named DeVries (Elias Koteas) -- a high-ranking police official who seems to get promoted higher up in the ranks as the years pass. He's there to harass Mandela and see him arrested and convicted. He's also there to harass Winnie when she becomes the keeper of her husband's flame, and see her consigned to 400 days of brutal solitary confinement. Later, when Apartheid crumbles, he's there to warn the prime minister that he's making a grave mistake giving in to blacks.
DeVries is, in other words, a lazy plot device, a single unlikely person who's meant to represent an entire system of oppression.
As for Winnie, her time in solitary is the closest we get to an explanation of how she goes from the angel of Soweto to its dark overlord. On her release, she is horrified to hear about necklacing, and a scene later she is a proponent, sitting in dark rooms with a drink, piano music tinkling, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
Over decades, the Mandelas have been among the world's most examined couples. Few examinations could have been as superficial as this.
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