There may be no life in South African politics more narratively riveting than that of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Her ex-husband Nelson may have the more grandly heroic arc, having endured 27 years in captivity to bring democracy to his nation, but her parallel story — one that includes triumph, disgrace and exile, the worshipful embrace of one population sector and the moral disgust of another, complete with a still-disputed murder mystery — is the stuff of true cinema. Though she has met with mixed fortunes on the biopic front over the years, a dedicated feature-length documentary on her is long overdue, making Pascale Lamche’s “Winnie,” which features rare and extensive first-hand testimony from the lady herself, something of an event. It’s a shame, then, that “Winnie” gradually reveals itself to be rather a specious work, unabashedly one-sided in its adherence to the “mother of the nation” line pushed by her admirers, and its factually selective absolution of Madikizela-Mandela from still-compelling criminal charges.
Lamche’s film, for which she won a directing award at Sundance, is inarguably valuable as a historical document, giving its still-fiery 80-year-old subject a generous platform to tell her side of a contentious story. As a documentary, the film’s achievement is considerably more, well, arguable — both in terms of its contribution to the Mandela mythos, and to the ongoing debate over the documentary filmmaker’s responsibility in presenting factual material to potentially uninformed audiences.
Lamche comes to the project with prior South African-themed docs, including “Sophiatown” and “Accused #1: Nelson Mandela,” and has a clear and engaging point of view on her subject. Even viewers with limited knowledge of Madikizela-Mandela’s story, however, are likely to sense that they aren’t getting the full account from an overwhelmingly defensive parade of talking heads — the most prominently featured of which, aside from the subject herself, include her daughter Zindzi and the partisan biographer-psychologist Anne-Marie du Preez Bezdrob. Their commentary is consistently laudatory; we’re informed that Madikizela-Mandela has been “demonized for being the voice of the downtrodden,” is “so often overlooked and disregarded,” and is “not the kind of woman who can remain voiceless” — in case her own interview segments, in which she grandiosely discusses herself in the third person, left that unclear.
The film substantiates such praise with ample coverage of Madikizela-Mandela’s significant achievements as an anti-apartheid archivist and the more militant face of her husband’s party, the African National Congress — mobilizing its youth and its women in particular. Where the film is far skimpier is in its discussion of her criminal convictions: The 1988 kidnapping and killing of 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi by Madikizela-Mandela’s bodyguards, allegedly on her instruction, is addressed only to the point of her murder acquittal, presented here as a complete vindication by a martyred-sounding Winnie and her sympathizers.
Grayer areas of law and history, including further accusations of abuse, kidnapping and exhortation to murder which have yet to be disproven, are glossed over. Lamche has not sought any witnesses for the prosecution to round out the film’s perspective, enlisting only unsympathetic gatekeepers of the former regime, including onetime National Intelligence Service head Niël Barnard, to suggest that “her private life was not exemplary.” Most startlingly of all, Madikizela-Mandela’s notoriously vocal endorsement of “necklacing” — a practice by which victims were confined in car tires and immolated — goes entirely unmentioned; ditto her 2003 conviction on multiple charges of fraud and theft in an alleged funeral policy scam.
Lamche ultimately does her fascinating, complicated subject a disservice by stacking the deck so heavily in her favor: The entire affair carries a whiff of protesting too much, particularly when even Archbishop Desmond Tutu comes in for censure here for imploring Madikizela-Mandela to apologize at 1997’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (One wonders if he was even invited by the filmmakers to comment.) Recorded over a two-year period, Madikizela-Mandela’s heated, articulate testimony is utterly gripping — most persuasively so toward the close, when she quite astutely admonishes the ANC for its post-Mandela failures of policy and retribution. (“Winnie” is emphatically a political portrait rather than a personal one: Her early life, and her marriage to Mandela prior to his 1963 imprisonment, gets only cursory treatment in the film.)
Throughout, Madikizela-Mandela is her own most interesting character witness; nothing said by the film’s strongly supportive panel of insiders can match her statements for specificity or conviction. The slick assembly of material is proficiently edited by Giles Gardner into a broadcast-friendly 98-minute package, though lacking of crucial tension and stakes due to the general absence of conflicting positions.
If anything, the life and legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela deserves messier treatment, a film as thorny and agitated and many-angled as the woman it portrays. (Indeed, a study on the scale of Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour “O.J.: Made in America” would be entirely warranted.) “Winnie” is best viewed as a starting point: It certainly offers viewers more to chew on than 2011’s misguided (if similarly romanticized) biopic of the same title, not least because Madikizela-Mandela, speaking only as herself, leaves Jennifer Hudson in the dust as a dramatic presence. What’s critically missing here is the historical friction that might encourage those newly intrigued by her story to probe further; viewers should be advised to bring their own pinch of salt.