Jennifer Hudson brings controversial South African figure Winnie Mandela to life in the long-awaited biopic, which hits select cities today. The ex-wife of Nelson Mandela is considered a polarizing figure, but Winnie attempts to give you the full story on the political figure – despite protests from Winnie Mandela herself.  

Here, Jennifer Hudson talks the upcoming film and more.  

Winnie Mandela has been called a child murderer and a thug. After playing her on screen, what did you think of her?
I didn’t really have judgment at all, even in playing the character. But from portraying the role and seeing what she went through, I almost felt as though I had an understanding of her. I felt like whatever she became, it came from what she went through with her life experiences. I’m not justifying anything or even passing judgment, but it’s something that almost happened to her – like she was forced into whatever she did.  

Winnie Mandela famously tried to stop the film from being made. Was there any hesitancy to play her knowing she didn’t support the film?
Well, I feel as though we were already in the thick of things by the time I found out about it. That’s all I can really say … but I kind of was separated from that.  

How hard was it to do the accent?
There were two things that were crucial for the role. One was to lose weight and the other was the accent. The producers were so worried about the physical. I’m like, “I’m not worried about losing the weight. I’m more concerned about the accent and getting that down.” A month or two even before I went to Africa, I spent as much time as possible to prepare getting the accent down because that was the thing I was most afraid of. I was able to work with two dialect coaches. They were a great help for me.  

Much of this film deals with the racism Winnie overcame. Do you experience racism?
Growing up we were so separate and ignorant to those things, I didn’t realize what was happening when it did happen. The only experience I can remember is my family and I were on a road trip. We stopped at a McDonald’s and we were the only Black people in the restaurant and they didn’t want to serve us. When they did, they threw our food across the counter. My mother knew what was happening but we didn’t know. 

With Nelson Mandela experiencing health issues, a lot of us are reflecting on what he means to us personally. What does his legacy hold for you?
Nelson Mandela’s legacy means a lot to all of us. That’s why it was such an honor to be a part of this. I was able to go to his cell, which he was in for 27 years. To be able to tell their history and the contribution Nelson and Winnie made to all of us, I always think – had she walked away or had he not been as strong as he was, had they given up, where would we be right now? It wasn’t just for Africa, everything they struggled for made a difference for us all and to the world.