Few rise to fame as fast as Jennifer Hudson, who at a speed almost unheard of, flew from an unknown Chicago singer to placing seventh in American Idol to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Dreamgirls. It was Hudson’s own story as well as her look that drew in Winnie director Darrell Roodt and producer André Pieterse. The South African natives, whose youths were affected profoundly by the Mendelas, were struck with exactly what they needed to bring their vision of Winnie to life. According to Pieterse, there was no one else they would rather see take on the role of Winnie Mandela (now Winnie Madikizela-Mandela) than Hudson.
During an interview with Lorraine Ali of The Daily Beast, Hudson discusses her role in the biopic that follows Winnie Mandela’s life from early teens, her marriage to former South African President Nelson Mandela, her prominent role in the apartheid fight, and onward to the present. As if portraying the living horrors of Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife isn’t challenging enough, Hudson’s job was made more difficult by legal threats from Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyer to stop production of the film. Then, further broadening her challenge, Hudson chose to confine herself to the prison cell set for several days in an attempt to “experience some of the hell that woman went through.”
Hudson relays how she gained new perspective through her portrayal of Winnie Mandela and the hell Winnie suffered in solitary confinement. “They snatched her out of her home and she had no idea what happened to her children. Imagine living that? This was her life! This was real. As a woman, I am angry for her, hurting for her. And as a mom? God, being in solitary confinement, away from my son just for five days when shooting those scenes—it was too much for me. I was drained and stripped down. I was changed.”
Winnie Mandela’s sentence to solitary confinement lasted more than 500 days. It was the year following her husband’s 1990 release of his 27 year imprisonment. Winnie faced a 6 year jail sentence on charges involving her part in the kidnapping of a 14-year-old boy that resulted in his murder. After appeal, the sentence was reduced to a fine, but she was convicted again on fraud and theft charges. Controversy over Winnie’s innocence or guilt continues to exist today. According to Hudson, “You mention Winnie to any African, and you see how affected they are by her. It’s a powerful subject that moves and excites people. Half the country think she’s Satan, the other half think she’s the world’s greatest hero.”
When considering Winnie’s prospective reaction to the final product of the film depicting her life, Hudson is confident the now 74-year-old South African parliament member will “be pleased.” Hudson clarifies, “That’s not to say the film is biased one way or another. It puts it all out there for you to come up with your own conclusion.”
If all goes as planned we’ll be able to come up with our own conclusions next September, the release date Pieterse and Roodt are aiming for as they enter discussions with many Hollywood studios.