Culture  Winnie’s Story

The postcolonial growth of Canada and the United States has followed separate and distinct paths, and as such, it is sometimes all too easy to forget our shared history. It can be hard for those caught under the thumb of oppression to find common ground with those whom history and politics have placed in geopolitically disparate arenas. Yet major cities have long been forums for disadvantaged groups to share ideas and foment opposition to their secondary status, and Montreal is no exception. This thriving hub is a locus of underground culture in a way that few cities can claim.

It is peculiar to consider the effect that the international border appears to have had on black identity in particular.  Back in the U.S. this summer, while working in a kitchen with my friend Vivian, I was surprised to hear her ask me, “Are there even any black people in Canada?”

Her question was a joke, framed in the context of a discussion of Canadian pop culture, but it raises several further questions about society, north and south of the international border. Vivian is proud to be a queer black woman, but wonders if there are many people here in Canada with whom she might stand in solidarity.  Surely she wouldn’t be alone if she came to visit: Montreal, and Canada more generally, have prominent and vocal populations of those who would identify as black, queer, or both. But what has white-washed her perspective on Canadian society? Is there a sense of mutual isolation that stands as the product of a lack of cross-border cultural exchange?

As the 8th annual Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBFF) makes its premiere, it’s important to reflect on the need for such an event. Art, in its many incarnations, can unite groups of people cast apart by arbitrary border lines, separated by systems of oppression, and divided by differing cultural perceptions of their identity.  The work of the MIBFF is the work of the artist.

Opening with the presentation of the 2012 MIBFF Humanitarian Prize to its first-ever recipient, American musician, filmmaker, and social activist Harry Belafonte, festival organizers made it clear from the start that international collaboration is truly the keystone to this event. Belafonte, whom readers may recognize more readily as the artist behind such well-known tunes as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line,” has been a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised throughout his career.  Born in the United States to parents of Jamaican and Martiniquan descent, he brought the calypso music of Trinidad and Tobago to audiences in America and worldwide. He has been thoroughly engaged in social activism throughout his career, from Dr. King and the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963 to his more recent documentary filmmaking projects such as Motherland, a history of African civilization and culture.

MIBFF then premiered with the film Winnie, the story of South African anti-apartheid activist Nomzamo Winfreda Madikizela-Mandela (played by Jennifer Hudson), former wife of Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard).  Another exercise in cross-border creation, Canadian producer Michael Mosca and South African director Darrell Roodt were on hand to present their film, explaining that teaming up as they did afforded them greater creative autonomy than if they had brought their project to a major Hollywood studio.  With the financial support of both the Canadian and South African governments, their efforts yielded not only an inspiring story, but also an example of the diplomatic power of film, divorced from the profit-driven productions that typically dominate the silver screen.

Rich with boundary-pushing cinematography and emotionally intense dialogue, Winnie is a film which never sacrifices momentum – though its narrative arc makes unexpected turns and twists in its effort to describe a character whose life eludes black-and-white moral distinctions. From childhood in a rural village, to her marriage to Mandela, the depiction of her early life, as authentic as the factual events are, is nonetheless painted in broad strokes. It is a deliberately romanticized account of humble beginnings and determination of character. Gradually the film pokes holes in this account, and though it never ceases to cast hers as the story of a hero, innumerable tragedies seep into the gaps, brewing a bitter medicine for the viewer who expected to taste sweet triumph. By the film’s end, Mandela’s choices make her an increasingly controversial character, but not an altogether unsympathetic one. Unlike other civil rights heroes like Dr. King, whose image in our collective consciousness has attained a near-mythic status, Winnie is fallible, angry, and resentful – in short, everything you or I would be if we stood in her shoes.

Despite the great political significance of Winnie Mandela’s work, it is her personal struggle that the film seeks to highlight above all else. The “Mother of the Nation” is an increasingly embattled character, a selfless woman whom circumstances placed on an unstable pedestal. Her 18 months in solitary confinement as a political prisoner leave visible scars across her face. Though Hudson’s Winnie recovers physically from the torment of her confines, the world awaiting her upon release from prison bleeds profusely, her psychological suffering played out by a cast of her countrymen. While South Africa is caught in the throes of a civil war ignored by the international community, one must wonder if she ever felt the same as my friend Vivian. Winnie isn’t asking “Are there any black people in Canada?” but the question that, among the oppressed, transcends individual experience: “Are we alone in our fight?”

And herein lies the need for festivals like the MIBFF. Though the dominant cultural apparatus may leave those at the margins feeling isolated, efforts such as this shatter the illusion of imprisonment, and provide a window onto the world that mirrors what they feel inside.  Moreover, the need to engage with such efforts is not limited to those whose struggles provide the subject matter.  The seeds of liberation are watered through collaboration, and this holds true across all demographic boundaries, racial or otherwise.  During a press conference, when asked for advice he might give the Quebec student movement,  Belafonte commented, “I think that we spend an awful lot of resources helping the marginalized and investing in and uplifting the underserved.  But I’ve come to the realization that we really need to address the marginalizers.” As with the student movement, bringing the margins to the center of discussion is an endeavor that will affect all involved. Regardless of one’s own identity, the best way to ensure the success of the MIBFF and all who support it is to get out there and attend.

MIBFF runs from September 19 to  30. For listings, tickets and general information, visit