Winnie

The biography of Winnie Mandela (Jennifer Hudson) starts when she is just a child, stick-fighting in her village. The film breezes through her schooling to get to grown-up Winnie and her courtship and romance with Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard). The film covers a respectable amount of history as biopics do, if a bit Hollywood in structure.

The first act sets the stage for the racism Winnie faced in college, and how the Mandelas were hunted by Apartheid authorities. Just in case anyone seeing this movie is a total blank slate, it's there but it's not redundant for the majority of us who know the history.

The romance is the most Hollywood part of it. Their courtship is whimsical, almost Annie Hall-esque only with chickens instead of a lobster. I didn't have a problem seeing a human side to the couple though. I know I'm about to watch the decades of political struggle and I would wonder what a personal toll it's going to take.

Once Nelson is imprisoned, the details begin to illuminate the struggle Winnie faced on the outside. Her letters to Nelson were redacted so she never even knew what sentences would remain by the time they got to him. The red tape forbade even visitation for a year. That's not just a romantic issue. It's basic humanity that's not allowed under Apartheid rule.

Writer/director Darrell Roodt was able to make a narrative out of the decades of struggle and accomplishment. By the time Winnie is imprisoned, the film has built up the social movement as an underdog resistance. Hudson's scene in the solitary cell will be her Oscar clip. The inhumane tactics prison officials used to wear down Winnie's spirit make her all the more triumphant for maintaining her perspective.

Since Nelson is in prison during the events of the film, Howard has the supporting role. His performance is classy, capturing the voice and gravitas we know of Mandela without getting too showboaty. It would make a fine companion piece to Morgan Freeman's in Invictus. As the focus of the story, Hudson becomes Winnie Mandela. You never feel you're watching a singer, actor or weight loss spokeswoman. Her progression from idealistic young woman to bitter, weathered politician is stark, even if the age makeup gets a bit costumey towards the '90s phase. Mainly, it's her inner strength during the prison torture scenes that captures the essence of Winnie.

The film focuses on a few years of the Mandela's lives: 1963, 1975, 1985 and 1997. Each years surrounding a key development, they're also able to show the general progress of the movement through settings and conversations. It seems jealousy and suspicion arises while Nelson is still in prison.

Towards the end, the film skims over the most controversial parts. Winnie's essential ostracizing from the ANC deals with allegations against her entourage of "Football club" bodyguards, but the film doesn't take a stand. The divorce is barely explained and I don't even think they use the D word. The film is short for a biopic, only about an hour 40. They definitely could have explored the most controversial parts and would have pissed some people off, but no guts no glory. It also would have been the less uplifting and inspiring parts but that shouldn't scare the filmmakers away.

Winnie may not be the definitive Mandela family biography but it's not the travesty I was worried it would be. It turns history into a compelling story and the lead performances are as strong as you'd expect. I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up on HBO given its by the books approach and summary towards the end, but a studio could make a case for these performances at Oscar time.