Jennifer Hudson stars as the title character in the troubled film “Winnie Mandela,” which follows the wife of the South African here through his long imprisonment. (Image/RLJ Entertainment)

The obstacles to the theatrical release of the biographical drama “Winnie Mandela” have been many. After a chilly critical reception at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, the movie, which stars Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson as the South African leader and his second wife, seemed destined to fade into the relative obscurity of cable and video on demand. Then, evangelical minister and producer T.D. Jakes (“Sparkle”) stepped in, agreeing to “present” the film in theaters under his name.

This is despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the film’s subject herself had been an outspoken critic of the production, reportedly threatening legal action before shooting had even finished and later complaining that the producers and star had never consulted her. Others found fault with South African director Darrell Roodt (“Cry, the Beloved Country”) for casting American actors in the lead roles.

In truth, the casting is probably the only reason “Winnie Mandela” is in theaters today. Despite the marquee names and their obvious talent, the film feels like a made-for-TV movie. It’s slight and episodic, with a weirdly scrupulous ambivalence about its subject, whom it seems torn between loving and loathing.

Based on Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob’s biography, “Winnie Mandela” opens with its subject’s humble birth, accompanied by syrupy music that would not be out of place in a story about the life of Jesus Christ. It follows Winnie through her student years in Johannesburg, where she trained as a social worker, through her courtship with and marriage to lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. It’s a union that doesn’t have much time to put down roots. Her husband is quickly imprisoned for sedition, spending much of the remainder of the film behind bars as Winnie carries the movement’s torch from the outside, at one point serving jail time herself.

Nevertheless, the movie presents the Mandelas’ love as one of the great romances, at times depicting the struggle for black liberation as a pesky hindrance to their being together.

Despite Toronto reviews that criticized (and not without reason) the film’s sentimentality and generally glowing depiction of Winnie as the “mother of the nation,” Roodt’s film deserves credit for spotlighting some of the controversial figure’s warts. One scene depicts her delivering her most infamous statement that, “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” That allusion to “necklacing” — or placing an old car tire doused with gasoline around the necks of police informants and then burning them alive — understandably shocked her husband, who is shown in the film begging his wife to choose a more politically temperate path.

The film’s handling of the death of James “Stompie” Seipei is only slightly more equivocal. The controversial 1989 murder of the teenage boy — who was apparently killed by Winnie’s thuglike bodyguards, and possibly in her own house, if not with her consent — is shown to take place behind closed doors. During a prison visit, however, Winnie offers justification for the death of the alleged police informant to her appalled husband, who not long after begins to contemplate divorce.

So “Winnie Mandela” is not exactly gushing praise.

Its portrait, however, is of a woman driven to extremes by love as much as politics. In the end, this feels like something of a narrative cop-out, given the horrific nature of some of what Winnie Mandela has been accused of. Still, Hudson is a pleasure to watch when Winnie is beginning to bug out, literally talking to insects while incarcerated. For his part, Howard remains a stolid background player, a charismatic figure in both his romantic encounters with Winnie and before a crowd. As the Mandelas’ chief tormentor, police colonel de Vries, Elias Koteas makes for a formidable, if scenery-chewing, screen presence.

It’s understandable why Winnie (now known as Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela, since her 1996 divorce from her husband) would be upset about this film, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether she’s its heroine or antihero. What’s less understandable is why Jakes signed on as producer. He’s on record as saying that his production company only handles work with a message. But what’s painfully unclear is just what message “Winnie Mandela” is trying to deliver.


R. At area theaters. Contains violence and crude language. 105 minutes.