The long-awaited Winnie Mandela biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard is finally headed to theaters. Winnie, which opened the Montreal International Black Film Festival this week, will be released nationwide in Canada starting October 5 with a U.S. release scheduled to follow in November.
We’ve followed the film’s long, tumultuous journey, from criticism of its casting, to a wave of negative reviews following its 2011 Toronto premiere, to various re-cuts and reshapes of the film. Recently writer/director Darrell Roodt (Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country) spoke with S&A on the uproar surrounding the movie and what audiences can expect as it makes its way to theaters.
One of the biggest sources of tension over the film has been the casting of American actors Hudson and Howard to play the iconic South African couple, the Mandelas. But Roodt says he had both actors in mind from the beginning. On why he chose them:
Terrence Howard is my all-time favorite actor. I just think that guy’s an astonishing man, and I got him and it was amazing. And Jennifer - when I saw her in Dreamgirls I was busy writing Winnie at the time, and I said this is a really interesting human being. I think she would be [right for the part.] So we went to them both and we got them both. It was one of those wonderful things where we didn't chase anyone.
As for audience backlash against casting, he wasn’t surprised, and indicated that star power was inevitably part of the decision:
We’re a very proud nation, South Africa. So when you're dealing with cultural nationalism and cultural icons like the Mandelas, people always would like to have home grown people playing those roles. But unfortunately the economic reality of making movies, it means you need to cast higher than [an unknown actor] that you may want to cast, to get the money to make the film.
The thing I say to the detractors, for example in my own country, is to see the film. Just see how much effort and homework these actors put into it. What Terrence Howard brought to the table is nothing less than astonishing in my estimation. It's just incredible, the depth with which he approached his character, and Jennifer did as well. She was just amazing.
And apparently, the initial criticism he received wasn’t of Hudson’s cultural background or acting ability, but of her size:
There were a lot of detractors and South African producers saying she needs to slim down, lose weight, etc. And so those were tricky negotiations to handle, but she did and now she's a spokesman for slimming down. [laughs]
As we learned last year, the real Winnie Mandela has had serious objections to the film, calling it “an insult.” In her highly publicized comments on CNN, she took issue with the casting of American actors and was also upset that she wasn’t consulted for the film.
Roodt, who has met Winnie Mandela previously and calls her an “amazing, inspiring human being,” says he originally wanted to involve her:
As a director and the creative entity, I desperately wanted Jennifer to meet her. But the South African producer [Andre Pieterse] convinced me otherwise. And I think ultimately he was right, because she's such a controversial character that if we had done this with her blessing, it might've been perceived as a whitewashed movie. But it's not that at all. It really embraces the dark times as well as the good times in Winnie Mandela's life.
He gave the sense that there were a few creative differences among the team, which may account for the lengthy period from the film’s first cut to its 2012 release. Much of that time has been spent making changes to the project:
The last time we showed it was last year. It's a work in progress and we've tweaked it since then, because it was interesting watching with an audience. In South Africa we’re so remote, so far removed from the rest of the world that it's rare to preview your film in other countries. So it's helpful when we showed it and it's a better movie now.
Various people saw it in various stages. And it's such a controversial story, [Pieterse] was initially running scared, so he was trying to shape it in another way and then eventually realized that the way we made it was the way to do it. So ultimately, although it's not precisely the film I made it’s still a pretty good movie in my estimation and I'm very proud of it.
As for whether there will be any additional changes to the film before its release:
No, no, no. I think this is the one. Even if someone said to me, would I like to do a director’s cut, I really wouldn't. It’s been quite a process to get here - a turbulent process, but ultimately a rewarding one.
Regarding content, Roodt believes that all audiences should be able to learn something from Winnie, whether they know Winnie Mandela’s story or not:
If you came to the movie and you didn't know who Winnie Mandela was, this is quite a complete picture of her as a young girl to the woman she is today; but at the same time, I really wanted to make sure that people who are familiar with the story didn't feel like I was cheating them at any given time. So I would deal with some very controversial aspects, and hopefully in an interesting way.
Obviously a film like this is always going to be difficult to be accepted by everyone. There will be detractors - the anti-Winnie, the pro-Winnie. There are so many sides on this story. But I’ve seen it with a lot of people now, and it's been really interesting to see the perception of the film from people who like Winnie and those who don't. They both come away thinking it’s an interesting film.
He suggests that although Winnie joins a long line of films he’s made about South Africa, stylistically this will be a departure from typical “apartheid cinema”:
I've grown up in South Africa and made films here, so of course there are all kinds of echoes throughout those [previous movies]. However, on Winnie I wanted to try and challenge the normal perception of “apartheid cinema” and make this much more complex. And a couple of people have criticized me for this. I don't keep cutting to endless rioting in the street, but I’m trying to show the story that was happening in the bedroom, specifically in Nelson and Winnie's bedroom, what were they perceiving as a married couple trying to get on with their lives while this was all going down.
We can also expect some feminist undertones in the film:
When I see the Winnie Mandela story I’m acutely aware that it’s the ultimate feminist movie, because it's about a woman fighting the fight in an extreme situation. That to me is fascinating - how the apartheid regime could focus their intensity on a female, a mother of two children, and her husband's in jail, and how this woman - a housewife - was fighting the fight. It's an incredible story.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.