When Jennifer Hudson got the script for “Winnie,” the biopic about the former wife of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, she didn’t know very much about the polarizing public figure.
“We’ve heard of her name and that she was Nelson Mandela’s wife, but that was it,” Jennifer told S2S. “Once I read the script, then that’s when I realized, “Wow! I guess I didn’t know her at all!”
Jennifer knew she couldn’t miss the chance to share the strength and struggles of this complex woman with the world.
“Like, okay, wait a minute, this is a story that’s worth being told, and why am I just now learning this at 30?”
In her early years, “Mother of the Nation” Winnie Madikizela became the first Black medical social worker at Johannesburg’s Baragwanath Hospital before marrying Nelson Mandela. (The two would divorce in 1996.) Winnie took up his fight for civil rights and lobbied more than 25 years for her husband’s release after his 1964 sentence to life imprisonment. Winnie’s protests drew the ire of the police, and she would go on to be arrested, locked in solitary confinement for more than a year, and even have her home firebombed for her efforts to end racial segregation.
Later Winnie’s legacy was marred by scandal, with her increasingly radical views — and her security team’s paranoia — leading to the 1989 murder of a 14-year-old boy they’d believed to be an informant. Winnie was convicted of kidnapping and accessory to assault for her role in the scandal, and in 2003 she was convicted of fraud (she maintained her innocence in a May 2004-issue interview with ESSENCE).
Jennifer spent four months in Africa, shooting “Winnie” with co-star Terrence Howard.
“I was told at one point that where I filmed the solitary confinement scenes was the same prison that Winnie was in, so to actually be in those spaces and places … it was overwhelming at times,” Jennifer said.
“I had no idea, one, that all of that was going on. And then it wasn’t that long ago. … So, [apartheid] was happening when I was about 12 or 13 years old? That’s a lot to take in.”
Jennifer enjoyed her time in Africa, but she couldn’t help feeling a a surge of patriotism when she returned to America.
“I didn’t feel like I was free before — or knew what it meant, you know? And so coming home after experiencing that for four months, it changed me in that way, to appreciate freedom that much more.”
“Winnie” was executive produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes and made its world premiere at MegaFest’s International Faith & Family Film Festival. It opens in theaters nationwide today.