CANNES, France — Jennifer Hudson has visited the film festival here twice, the first time in 2006 with a 20-minute highlights reel from the film version of “Dreamgirls.” Needless to say, this was before “Dreamgirls” won her a supporting actress Oscar. Posh, influential festivals and the component parts of hype machinery were relatively new to Hudson then. In fact, when the producers told her she’d be going to Cannes, she says, “I was, like, ‘You mean Canada?’”
She came back to Cannes this week. This time, Hudson had a bodyguard, an enormous Gallic Lurch-like fellow with a surprisingly mellow disposition.
The occasion: an “announcement” press event, held on the beach below the majestic Hotel Majestic. Hudson and company weren’t selling a movie playing in the festival. The movie doesn’t start shooting in South Africa for another two weeks.
Already, it has proven controversial.
The $15 million “Winnie” stars Hudson as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, opposite Terrence Howard’s Nelson Mandela. Financed by South African and Canadian investors, director Darrell Roodt’s drama spans decades in the life of the anti-apartheid activist, whose looming image was tarnished by her conviction (the prison sentence was later reduced to a fine on appeal) for her role in a kidnapping case, followed by fraud and theft charges.
Roodt said Monday that his film, several years in development, intends to honor its primary subject.
At the same time, he said, “the script we wrote is the script we’re making.” He added: “Because we didn’t involve Winnie Mandela upfront, we couldn’t afford to be lackadaisical in any way. We need to have our facts straight.”
The preproduction bash in Cannes was greeted by news guaranteed to keep “Winnie” in the spotlight even before filming commences. Several weeks ago, producer Andre Pieterse said, attorneys for Madikizela-Mandela told Pieterse that the subject of the film would appreciate script approval in advance. (Reportedly, she was angry at the degree to which she was marginalized in the film “Invictus.”) “If the film maligns her in any way,” Pieterse told reporters in Cannes, “then there will be legal basis for her to take action.”
None of these potential storm clouds was visible Monday, when Hudson and Howard sat for interviews with the BBC and Women’s Wear Daily and dozens more, as the wind whipped along the Mediterranean and a huge bulldozer moved sand around a few hundred yards east of the photographers.
“So you came all the way from Chicago too!” Hudson said. She said she’s been working with a South African dialect coach for a week now.
Roodt talked to Hudson about playing the title role several years ago. Filming was delayed, however, by the 2008 Chicago killing of Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew.
“Despite the tragedies in her life, Jennifer remained committed to the project,” Roodt said. “She needed to heal and find herself again. And she has.”
Co-star Howard said he first met Hudson on some red carpet or other, somewhere on the awards-show circuit. She hadn’t yet won the Oscar. “I remember looking at her and her not yet recognizing why she’d gotten where she was, why she was in that position.”
Howard, who favors the elaborately spun metaphor, added: “Sometimes a star never sees its own reflection because the planets are too small to reflect its light. ... Jennifer still has no idea how much light she has shone on young women and young men of color — of any human descent.”
Four years ago, when she came to Cannes with the “Dreamgirls” reel, “they used to try to tell me that things” were about to explode, Hudson recalled.
“But I had no idea. At all.”
After “Winnie” wraps filming this summer, Hudson embarks on an international tour in support of her second album, due in September. “Winnie” is expected to have a 2011 release.