Winnie Mandela’s derivative portrayal in a Long Walk to Freedom

winnielongwalkThe latest Nelson Mandela biopic, “Long Walk to Freedom” is not a disappointment. It’s a moving, informative treatment of Nelson Mandela’s eponymous autobiography. And Winnie Mandela as played by Naomie Harris is compelling. Harris conveys well the impassioned spirit of the most powerful woman in the history of African anti-colonial struggle. The movie’s blurb states, “The leader you knew. The woman you didn’t”. This is a Winnie Madikizela-Mandela moviegoers have not been introduced to previously.

Yet Winnie’s story still remains untold. Harris does not capture – and this is not a fault of hers but of the script’s – the innate courage and natural empathy that makes Winnie such a paladin. Rather, so that we can understand, and condemn, Winnie’s later life: her love affairs, her involvement in the Mandela United Football Club and in particular, her radical political views that made reconciliation with Nelson impossible, Winnie is first portrayed as a naively sweet love interest of Mandela’s, later taking on her husband’s struggle only to eventually turn (if understandably) into a bitter, dangerous woman.

What type of woman did Nelson Mandela really fall in love with?

In truth, Winnie was not saccharin-sweet when she met Nelson but determined and independent (she was by then the first black medical social worker in South Africa, she’d run away from her family to avoid traditional marriage, she’d turned down a US scholarship to remain active in the ANC etc.). Neither did she simply fight her “husband’s” struggle (she fought her struggle, which was also black South Africa’s struggle and the women’s struggle). And she did not turn into a bitter woman (but rather a wronged one). Yet in the movie she is depicted in these ways to juxtapose to her ex-husband’s messianic portrayal.

Needless to say such an approach is unnecessary. Nelson does not need Winnie’s heroism to be diminished in order for his iconic status to be assured. He was a hero if ever there was one.

Desperately seeking Winnie.

Also, obviously, “Long Walk to Freedom” is chiefly about Nelson not Winnie. So I’m not suggesting that Winnie’s role should be more prominent. Rather, I’m arguing that her portrayal is derivative. The film humanises Mandela (perfectly acted by heart-throb Idris Elba) but fails to do the same for Winnie. Her story remains an ensnaring mystery between celebration and denunciation.

The problem storytellers have with Winnie is that she is “un-neat”. She is a troublemaker, a political icon,  a woman who made heavy sacrifices for the struggle, a symbol of resistance, a femme fatale, and not simply “Mandela’s Wife”. In fact, Winnie’s (un)wifeliness was a refusal to become an emblem of racist and patriarchic nationalism. Which is not to say that Winnie’s political career wasn’t shaped by her becoming the estranged wife of the ANC leader, but her struggle was not the side dish of his struggle. It was IT. The same fight.

If, in a biopic about Winnie, Nelson’s struggle was made to seem like a by-product of Winnie’s activism, would viewers accept it?

I thought not. And nor should we accept the revisionism of our women heroes.

What should we do?

Above all, not be fooled. See critically. Listen ethically. Observe curiously.

A wise woman once said, “Behind every great man is a great woman”. True, although the great women are not always “behind” the great men. They are in the frontline. Being compromised.

Look, we have to continue to tell their stories: to write about them: make movies about them: sing about them: paint them. Subjectify them. Cherish them. Criticise them. Love them. Loathe them. All of it. Women’s stories Must.Be.Protected.

At all costs.

By us.


Have you seen the movie? Any reflections?

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    • MsAfropolitan

      “A man who rises above indignity is just more palatable than a women who confronts it dead in the eyes.”
      YES. And I can’t think of a more blatant story of this “genderism” in modern times than the Madikizela/Mandela story. If it happens this visibly in this case we can only imagine how many other women’s stories are obscured.
      Thanks, Nadezhda.

  • Missouri

    I haven’t seen the movie yet; but hope to see it soon. I have always been fascinated by Winnie Mandela; not just by her MASSIVE contribution to Nelson Mandela’s cause, but because of her determined taciturnity when it comes to revealing WHAT happened exactly between herself and Mandela; almost like she won’t give it more attention than necessary. And that is perhaps why the world keeps trying to do an off-the-mark interpretation of who they think she is, or what she represents. If she has an auto biography, I’ll be the first to buy! :)

    • Kemi

      Winne Mandela does indeed have an autobiography, ‘491 days’. I just discovered this after doing some research following seeing the film. It is about her time in solitary confinement. And she’s on twitter! I haven’t bought it just as yet. Yet.

      • MsAfropolitan

        Thanks for this info!

    • MsAfropolitan

      @ Missouri – Did you see the comment by @Kemi that she has an autobio? Can’t wait to read it.

      Her contribution was not to Nelson Mandela’s cause. We need to stop allowing the idea that Winnie’s suffering – solitary confinement, physical and mental abuse, being away from her children etc.- was some romantic gesture. There’s so much more to it.

    • MsAfropolitan

      @ Missouri – Did you see the comment by @Kemi that she has an autobio? Can’t wait to read it.
      Her contribution was not to Nelson Mandela’s cause. We need to stop allowing the idea that Winnie’s suffering – solitary confinement, physical and mental abuse, being away from her children etc.- was some romantic gesture. There’s so much more to it.

  • Kemi

    I saw this movie a few days ago. I was not going to see it as I have been reconciling (?, there is a better word in my arsenal, my brain is frozen, I feel no guilt for this attitude) what was once an ambivalence about the continual appropriation of African history as African man’s history to what now is a pretty full blown intolerance and vexation. Why are African women tolerating this? It is a denigration of African women and the desecration of our female ancestors to allow our role in history and the present to be treated as a mere appendage, a prop to buffer the story of ”what the African man went through”. Bullshit, enough! On Long Walk…It me left feeling that I wanted to know more about Winnie which was good as I went into the movie damning the fact that during the fortnight of tributes to Mandela, Winnie’s role within the western media was deafening in its silence. I was surprised that she had the prominence in the film she did even if she was used as a device to juxtapose against ‘Saint Nelson’ (I don’t mean this pejoratively, but this is how Mandela’s legacy has been painted). Agreed, I did not like the continual scowling portrayal of Winnie, she was made to look like a ‘bitter, angry black woman’ who was a threat to the gestation of the ‘rainbow nation’. Winnie’s portrayal in the film however was compelling and I think regardless of what you thought of her going in, even if it was absolutely nothing, it was more than enough to provoke an interest.

    On another note, there is a scene at the beginning showing a young Nelson in his woman chasing days, young and happy, chancing his hand in the direction of north up the woman who was to become his first wife’s skirt. After the 20 year portrayal of Nelson as the saint as opposed to the revolutionary he was, this scene made me cringe! It was like watching one of the gods attempt to get busy!!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment, made me chuckle even while raising serious issues. Gotta make some room to laugh about it all, hey. It was the remark about reconciliation turning into intolerance (ha! yup.) then ‘Saint Nelson’ ( not perjorative laughter either). But I agree. And smile.
      Seriously though, I too don’t get why we let this revision and oppression continue. Damn the claws of patriarchy. Time to wake up.

  • Gailyfleur

    I watched LWTF and loved it until two thirds of the way through, then i just hated it. The film betrayed one of the most central tenets of Mandela’s life: that the struggle was a collaborative effort and not ONE MAN’S STRUGGLE. The film did the opposite: made Mandela a one man show and reduced his comrades to stick figures of no significance. That aside, I agree with your analysis that Winnie’s portrayal is derivative. But it reflects a long-held ambivalence towards Winnie, both inside SA and most certainly in the West. There simply is no ‘mould’ in which to cast her. Her ongoing defiance and refusal to be reduced to a mere sidekick to the great man irks many. She embraced her role as his public face, the beautiful, defiant, revolutionary woman whose very being was a constant reminder of the imprisoned, hidden, unknown terrorist that the apartheid state sought to contain. But she was always her own woman. And of course her involvement in the Stompie Sepei murder marked a major turning point, from which there was no going back. Like Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Winnie committed the ultimate crime of womanhood: she was complicit in the murder of a child. But like Sethe, that act is tied entirely to the context. But it is one for which the West and White South Africans are unable to forgive, ironic considering the mammoth act of forgiveness Mandela and black South Africans have had to undertake. The ambivalence to Winnie was witnessed so clearly by Barack Obama’s refusal to acknowledge her at the Mandela Memorial. He walked right past her TWICE on his way to acknowledge Graca. So you’re right, Winnie isn’t ‘neat’, she isnt ‘nice’, she is as defiant today as she was throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties. She remains a woman in her own right, has no desire to be anyone’s icon or kowtow for anyone’s approval. And she continues to be held in high esteem by the people for whom she sacrificed her life. Her portrayal in this film was awkward – not helped by Naomie Watts hunched shouldered portrayal, which made no sense. Winnie remains an important totem for South African feminists, not because she espoused any feminist utterances, but because of the way she embraced the role of wife and mother and made them acts of political defiance and revolutionary resistance. And ultimately demonstrated the limits of the ideology of the ‘family’ for revolutionary women.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for this awesome comment. Great points raised about the collaborative struggle, Winnie’s defiance of family as symbolic of family institution generally, Obama’s (depressing) negligence of Winnie, and the comparison to Morrison’s Sethe helps us go deeper into this issue.

      I was about walking out of the movie theatre half way into the film but I wanted to write about it and so I stayed. If torn.

      The one man show in leadership and the messianic male prophet seem increasingly like the same thing to me.

  • Harriet

    I find that any time a woman stands in her own right and refuses to be this flexible feminine whatever it is she is supposed to be she is never understood, never forgiven for being who she is then she is simply hated. No excuses, no apologies, no explanations, no need for approval that is my ideal… one day I will get there….

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  • E.

    Francophone here, so you’ll excuse my typos and other grammar mistakes.
    I remember doing some research on Winnie Mandela after seeing the movie with Jennifer Hudson. There was something amiss about the way she was portrayed. I have never liked how Winnie’s always presented as this bitter and mean woman, who dared to cheat on her husband instead of patiently waiting for him like some Penelope (was it the name of Ulysse’s wife)? I AM NOT CONDONING adultery but I do not like double standards. I despise the fact that when male politicians stray and have extramarital relations (they don’t even have the excuse of their wives being jailed for years), it’s barely a comma, in the account of their political struggles. Yet, when it comes to women, it seems it’s the only thing we should remember.
    Ms Afropolitan wrote: “Yet in the movie she is depicted in these ways to juxtapose to her ex-husband’s messianic portrayal.” This sentence reminded me of something Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Mase said: she said that Mandela’s liberation was seen as the second coming of the Messiah. and he was only human. She also reminds people that this was a man, at least before his 27 years of imprisonment, who wasn’t a faithful husband. Have you ever heard any of these people, especially the men who sing the praises of Mandela’s political prowess, make a beeline about this? I am not trying to belittle the symbol Mandela represents but like someone else mentioned it here, it wasn’t a one-person fight: it was a collective one. Winnie Mandela also went to and through hell and came back from it. She might have not come back from it, as pure as a little lamb, but the point is that she had a glimpse of it and survived it. No one seems to remember that: the only thing history wants to remind her by is that she was an adulterous spouse. Let’s brand her with a big A! Fair enough: let’s also brand all the cheating and ruling male leaders of this world and let’s make sure that in every history book, we have at least 2 paragraphs dedicated to their sexual adventures. After all, it’s also part of what makes them so charismatic.

  • Keisha

    Once again a post on here broke my writer’s block – thank you!!!

    I’ve seen the film and I agree with many of the comments, but disagree with the main premise of the article; I think Mandela is a good film objectively speaking, but a poor political biography. I expected a far more intimate understanding of the man and his motivations given it was supposed to be about one person.

    That it was mainly about recreating well-documented events seemed a slightly odd narrative choice, and I also thought it was weak at portraying a movement of people fighting for the same cause. I have no idea how cohesive or not the anti-apartheid movement was in South Africa, but the film suggested a couple of people here and a couple of people there and then magically concerts at Wembley stadium. Which is a shame cos how the Free Nelson Mandela campaign became international could have been an interesting subplot (and would have provided an interesting comparison to last year’s Angela Davis film, Free Angela and all political prisoners).

    For me (admittedly a Londoner) Winnie’s role in the film seems to explain how the end of apartheid could have easily been a far less forgiving affair. But then I’m coming from a place where Winnie Mandela is very much a forgotten political figure so I was simply pleased to see her returned to prominence. I also felt that her character had a proper ‘arc’ beginning one place and finishing somewhere different with a full explanation provided by the film. With Madiba, it feels too often that we’re expected to ‘know’ what happens and so only the barest of details are provided about what he feels at critical junctures in the film. Which is simply no way to make an historical film.

    All that said, great to read a female African perspective on the Mandela film!

  • akhumo

    I have mixed feelings when it comes to this movie. I have not seen and I have no intention of ever watching it. As a young black South African woman (and Black on top of it all), this stance has had those in my circle with eyes popping and tongues hanging out. But, that’s just me. I do not feel that there can ever be a true depiction of what really happened in those years of the struggle of my people.
    There are still so many untold stories and many issues, incidents, e tc. That will forever lay buried. Personally, I have felt for a long time that although Nelson Mandela may be deemed a “Hero of the Struggle” and the emancipation of the People, for me he was but a man who became the part of a movement. I fail to put him high above all those who played a part in the fight for freedom and equality. He remains a “face” of the then struggle. Nothing more than good PR in my eyes!
    I’ve been told that I should be ashamed of myself for feeling this way about this “great man”, I am ungrateful, blah blah blah… I digress…
    My refusal to watch/ support the Long Walk to Freedom movie also stems form the fact that the filmmakers have chosen to cast international actors (talented as they may be) in the leading roles as opposed to South Africa’s (very talented and capable) actors and actresses. For me, all that this simply says is:
    If there is one thing though that Mandela may have taught and taught well, is that I have a right to my opinion! That is a gift to be treasured for life!