TORONTO - The rise and ignoble fall of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is at the centre of "Winnie," a sprawling South African-Canadian co-production that hits theatres this weekend after a tortured festival run.
Director Darrell Roodt fully expected the film would put him on the hotseat over the controversial leader's rightful place in history, but these days he just as often finds himself forced to explain the premature downfall of "Winnie" itself.
He says the ambitious biopic was getting Oscar whispers for stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard before it was slammed by savage reviews from critics.
That drubbing took place more than a year ago when an unfinished version appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Roodt admits "that smell from TIFF" lingers to this day, although he notes a re-cut "Winnie" that recently screened at the Montreal International Black Film Festival was greeted by an enthusiastic audience.
"It wasn't finished, it should never have been shown at TIFF," Roodt says in a phone call from Johannesburg.
"The South African producer, he got greedy, he saw dollar signs and fame and glory and it's a golden rule: never ever show your film until it's complete, with the sound on, the picture, the music, all of that stuff. And that proved to be the case."
Since then, Roodt says the story has been fleshed out and fine tuned, making for a much stronger film and a more complete picture of who Madikizela-Mandela really is.
"We have more background information on her birth and where she came from and more detail within the story itself. (The other cut) was like a truncated version, it was like the 'Reader's Digest' condensed version," he says of the $15-million feature, which includes $1 million in production funds from Telefilm and co-stars Canadians Elias Koteas and Wendy Crewson.
"This is a much tougher movie, it is much more uncompromising."
The 107-minute portrait traces the beginnings of Madikizela-Mandela's unflinching drive, starting with her arrival as the sixth daughter born to a rural teacher desperate for a son. Even as a headstrong child, she displays a keen awareness of her place in the world and the freedoms she is arbitrarily allowed and denied.
By the time she meets Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 1957, she's on her way to breaking her own barriers as an accomplished student and social worker. Together, they form a fierce bond that Mandela credits with allowing him to survive a lengthy imprisonment that begins early in their marriage.
Madikizela-Mandela's love for her husband largely fuels an unwavering resistance to the apartheid regime, says Roodt, an Oscar nominee for his 2004 film "Yesterday."
Her fervent dedication earns her the nickname "Mother of the Nation" but also steers her down a violent path that ultimately becomes her undoing.
Roodt says the film does not shy away from delving into Madikizela-Mandela's darker qualities but he insists it's unfair to define her solely by the allegations of fraud and human rights abuses that dog her later years.
"I just bumped into someone today again that said, 'Oh, gee, I hope you showed the bad part of Winnie,'" says Roodt.
"I said, 'Jesus, is that all you can talk about?' Do you know who Winnie Mandela was and what she actually did? If it wasn't for Winnie you might not be standing in that shop asking me that question now because the whole country might have gone up in flames.'
"Because she really was the champion of the liberation of South Africa, you know. Yes, her reputation got tarnished along the way but I'm sorry, war is war, you know. The South African government, did they come up smelling of roses? I don't think so. They murdered and committed lots of atrocities in that war and poor Winnie, she got implicated in one thing and bang, she was (labelled) the worst person of all time. I don't think so."
That one thing was her 1991 conviction in the abduction of a 14-year-old boy. The decomposing body of Stompie Moeketsi was found in 1989 with his throat slit. Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguard Jerry Richardson was convicted of the murder.
"Nobody ever knows what happened in that room with Stompie, ultimately," says Roodt.
"Yes, OK, so it's a 14-year-old kid who died, absolute tragedy and it should not happen ... however, he was a known police spy. It was a terrible time in South Africa and yes, she should have prevented that from happening but at the same time the South African government was using every method at their disposal to take her out."
Roodt praises Hudson for diving into a challenging role that required her to completely transform herself, noting that it wasn't long after she joined the cast that she became a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers.
"When I was writing it, 'Dreamgirls' had just come out and she won the Oscar and I said, 'Wow, she's pretty interesting,'" recalls Roodt, whose film "Little One" will represent South Africa at the next Oscars in the best foreign-language film category.
"I thought, 'She's a perfect Winnie because she's got a definite resemblance to her and I also loved the way she acted in "Dreamgirls," you know.' But she was big and (my producer) said, 'OK, you can get her but you've got to convince her to reduce her weight.' And those were strange conversations, to say the least."
Roodt says "Winnie"'s inauspicious debut in Toronto made it more difficult than expected to snag worldwide distribution deals.
Nevertheless, Canada is the first country to release the film theatrically, he notes.
"Because of that smell from TIFF it caused a problem with a couple of potential distributors," says Roodt, admitting to some disappointment that his homeland of South Africa won't be the first to see the film.
"People were talking definitely an Oscar for Terrence and an Oscar nomination for Jennifer and doing big business in the U.S. with the African American audiences. We're still trying, it's not over yet."
"Winnie" hits theatres on Friday.