Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Winnie Movie Poster Image
Story of controversial activist has violence, mature themes.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 98 minutes

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Positive Messages

Suggests that in the transition from white control to black control, the African National Congress party feared that asking for too much would jeopardize its ability to get anything at all. According to the film, Winnie wanted more concessions from the white power structure and spoke up loudly, so her own party helped frame her for a murder she didn't commit.


Positive Role Models & Representations

Winnie is a charismatic, brave, intensely intelligent, determined, strong-willed, strategic, and uncompromising freedom fighter who spends her whole life fighting injustice but is nevertheless delegitimized by government factions that feared her power. Apartheid leaders were racist and greedy and didn't want to share power with the country's majority black population. Nelson Mandela supported his wife at first but later seemed to consider her a political liability and withdrew his support.


The apartheid government used murder, torture, imprisonment, economic oppression, and banishment to terrify the black population and threaten them into submission. Graphic scenes of shootings and riots are shown.


A newspaper headline suggests Winnie had an affair during her husband's long incarceration.


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Winnie is a historical look at the life and difficult times of South African leader Winnie Mandela, who fought against apartheid while her husband, Nelson, was imprisoned for 27 years. The intense violence and racism of the whites-only repressive regime she fought are depicted in news footage and descriptions of murderous, bloody riots and shootings. A newspaper headline suggests Winnie had an affair during her husband's long incarceration. The focus is on political betrayal, backstabbing, and an unjust justice system. Participants in the struggle for freedom as well as former government officials discuss the government's attempts to maintain power in the hands of 3.5 million whites and out of the hands of the country's 30 million blacks. Best for teens and up.

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What's the story?

Many young viewers will be unaware that violent racism was the law of the land in South Africa until 1994, when Nelson Mandela negotiated a relatively peaceful takeover from the white apartheid government by the black-led African National Congress. WINNIE focuses on the job his wife, Winnie, did to fight the racism and the violence against blacks both before, during, and after Nelson's 27 years in prison. The documentary suggests that Winnie was less compromising than her husband, more socialist and more progressive, a position that made her a target of both whites -- who wanted to negotiate retaining more power in the transition to black rule -- and, surprisingly, the blacks taking over, who didn't want to jeopardize negotiations by asking for too much. Winnie was ostracized and isolated through strategic accusations about her character and her motives by both black and white leaders as her political positions remained constant. The movie asserts murder charges against her were trumped up in the attempt to delegitimize her and lessen the threat she and her many supporters posed to peaceful transition. 

Is it any good?

This documentary makes the case that Winnie Mandela was railroaded by concerted and tactical efforts to sully her name and dissipate her power. The trouble is that some parts seem muddy and may be difficult to follow for all but the most well-informed. The story of the murder charges against her and the origins of that story aren't presented as clearly as they might have been. Also, the argument for the deliberate and baseless besmirching of her name is made, but it feels a bit one-sided and thus perhaps not as convincing as it might have been. Oddly, Winnie never suggests that the efforts by her own party to get rid of her had anything to do with anti-female bias, which certainly feels like a factor to even the most uninformed observer.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the startling oppressiveness of the South African regime and its cruelty to the country's majority black population. Slavery in America ended long ago (although racism persists). Parents may wish to help kids understand how such institutional racism could exist into the 1990s.

  • Why do you think Winnie seems to have been singled out for vilification by both the apartheid government and the ensuing black majority regime?

  • Some people and organizations boycotted South African products and events to help end apartheid. Do you think the community of other nations and concerned individuals should have condemned the apartheid government earlier? What role do you think money, power, and racism played in the white government's ability to keep the black population down?

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