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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Winnie Mandela is an often-intense biographical drama about South Africa's first black first lady (played by Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson). The drama spans several decades during which black South Africans, led by Nelson Mandela, fought to overthrow the country's apartheid government, only to be met with armed reprisals by the Afrikaner police or military. The white authorities open fire on unarmed schoolchildren and harass and arrest African National Congress members and torture them. There's also black-on-black violence, including the practice of "necklacing" (a tire doused with gasoline is placed around a victim who's then lit on fire), a kidnapping that leads to a 14-year-old boy's death, and brutal treatment of accused collaborators/informants. Strong language includes a few uses of "f--k," "s--t," and "bastard."
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What's the story?
WINNIE MANDELA opens with the birth of Nomzamo Winfreda Zanyiwe Madikizela, the sixth daughter of a tribal village's teacher who was hoping for a son. Knowing about her father's disappointment, young Winnie sets out to prove that she can fight like a boy. As a teen, Winnie (Jennifer Hudson) is sent to boarding school in Johannesburg, where she studies to become a social worker and first meets charming anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard). After a couple of subsequent encounters, the two fall in love, marry, and have two children. But Nelson is persistently targeted by the Afrikaner government and eventually sentenced to life in prison for "treason." During the 27 years that Nelson is behind bars, Winnie faces harassment, death threats, and her own imprisonment, and she also makes polarizing decisions that hinder the Mandelas' cause.
Is it any good?
The first half has all the makings of a typical biopic: sentimental dialogue, crucial moments of injustice the protagonist must overcome, overwrought music, and a respectful view of a beloved figure. Hudson's Winnie is dismissed, harassed, or discriminated against by nearly every white Afrikaner she encounters. Naturally, handsome lawyer-boxer-activist Nelson Mandela is the only man virtuous enough for the lovely social worker, who's up to the task of leading by his side.
But after Nelson and, subsequently, Winnie are imprisoned, the tone shifts dramatically. South African director Darrell Roodt doesn't shy away from the unsavory aspects of Winnie's biography -- particularly during the last third of the film -- but her decisions to make controversial statements, support gruesome street retaliations, and allow a crew of violent "thugs" to be her bodyguards are never fully explained or explored. By the time Winnie has implicitly given the OK to kidnap and kill an alleged police informant -- who's only 14 -- it's difficult to think of her as the "Mother of the Nation."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Winnie Mandela's messages about the nature of political reform. What did you learn about the anti-apartheid movement and South Africa? What do you think about the Mandelas?
How does the movie portray the anti-apartheid movement? Is it clear what the Mandelas were fighting for and why they were willing to be imprisoned -- or even die -- to overthrow apartheid?
What aspects of the story make it clear that Winnie Mandela was and is a controversial figure?
- In theaters: September 6, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: December 3, 2013
- Cast: Elias Koteas, Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard
- Director: Darrell Roodt
- Studio: Image Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Run time: 107 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: some violence and language
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.