‘Winnie’ Tells the Other Side of the Mandela Story

The Sundance directing award winner brings Winnie Madikizela-Mandela out of her ex-husband’s shadow.

Behind every great man there’s a great woman. So it is in Winnie, a quietly powerful film about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. During Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, she led the African National Congress in her husband’s absence and coordinated continued pressure against South Africa’s Apartheid state. Throughout her years in the position, she became an increasingly controversial figure. By the time Nelson was freed and in line to assume the presidency, charges of assault and murder were levied at Winnie. In order to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, Nelson divorced the woman who had stood ceaselessly by his side.

The vilification of Winnie that followed painted her as a violent tyrant, in contrast to Nelson’s godly image. Pascale Lamche’s documentary strives to address that imbalance between husband and wife. According to the footage she’s assembled, Winnie was no submissive First Lady type; she was an intelligent and invigorating leader in her own right. Lamche has been accused of going too far the other way and presenting a selective and one-sided celebration of the so-called “Mother of the Nation,” but the director’s role feels more non-partisan than you might expect. Archive footage can of course be subjectively edited, but the material here seems of a piece with the visual histories presented previously across countless news channels and docs.

Winnie assumes quite a simplistic form. Chronological archive footage is intercut with talking heads interviews. Biographers and journalists, as well as Apartheid government figures and even one of the Mandela daughters all shed light on the titular woman. But most rousing of all in the film is Winnie herself. She’s still going strong and is a vibrant presence through a number of interviews. Her admission of responsibility is slight but felt deeply. In the end, her sorrowful eyes convey more truth than any emotional anecdote.

Nelson is a fleeting presence, and the film feels odd without him early on, but Lamche makes a compelling case for Winnie deserving her own story. She was so vital to the cause throughout her life. During Nelson’s imprisonment, the police believed that bringing her down was the key to ending the struggle. But, being so prominent in the international public eye, she was the only one they couldn’t touch. The eventual accusations were the perfect opportunity for them to sideline her more radical socialist politics. They set out on a sexist crusade against her, which resulted in her side of history being suppressed. It was a purposeful, targeted attack by the government that weaponized cultural misogyny. As one of her daughters explains in the film: “She’s an activist. She’s a fighter. She’s not the type of person who can be voiceless.” They tried their damnedest, but her voice may finally be out there once again.

Lamche knows that Winnie herself is the key to encouraging people to question the sexist narrative we’ve been fed. The film grapples with the painfully grey areas of the South African revolution and the actions of the ANC’s followers. But Winnie stands out as an endlessly impressive woman, whatever her ills. She may never escape the immense shadow of her ex-husband. But she deserves to stand by his side or, better still, apart from him as a vital civil rights icon in her own right.