CANNES, France (Reuters) - Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson is to star in a biopic of former South African President Nelson Mandela's ex-wife Winnie, whose lawyers have already contacted the film makers threatening to block it.
"Winnie," which also features Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela and is based on a book by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, starts shooting in South Africa on May 31 and could be ready for theatres by spring next year.
Producer Andre Pieterse said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had asked to see and approve the script before the picture went ahead, but that its backers had refused.
"A lawyer's letter came some weeks ago," Pieterse told reporters at the Cannes film festival, where Hudson and Howard appeared to promote the production.
"It was a benign letter and yet it contained the threat of an indictment, an interdict that could stop the picture.
"She (Madikizela-Mandela) ... would like to see the script and approve. (But) the film will be made based on a screenplay that was well researched and without any interference.
"If the film maligns her in any way then there will be legal basis for her to take action."
DIRECTOR CONFIDENT OF SUPPORT
Director Darrell Roodt was confident, however, that she would support what he described as first and foremost "an amazing love story.
"We have such a perception of her, but it's entirely the incorrect one, because she was one of the few saviours of South Africa," he said of a woman who supported her husband Nelson throughout his 27 years in apartheid-era jails.
"This is a woman who is just extraordinary beyond all measure and it's high time that a great film is made about a great South African and a great human being."
Roodt said he heard Madikizela-Mandela had been upset by Clint Eastwood's recent South African-themed movie "Invictus" "because she was relegated to two lines in the picture."
"It's the same old story -- Winnie is ... always in the back room," he added.
Madikizela-Mandela is one of South African politics' most divisive figures, once hailed as "mother of the nation" but who was convicted in 1992 of kidnapping a teenaged anti-apartheid activist who was later murdered.
She has since returned from the political wilderness after a fraud conviction.
She married Mandela in 1958 and they separated in 1992, some two years after he was released from prison.
U.S. actress and singer Hudson, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her debut film role in 2006's "Dreamgirls," said she initially hesitated over such a prominent role.
"It's just a no-brainer in a way," she told reporters. "I didn't know much of it (her history) but of course I knew Nelson Mandela and I wanted to learn the story of Winnie and once I did I wanted to tell it.
"I have not been to South Africa, but in a way I feel like I am already starting my journey there by doing my research and learning of this culture."
(Editing by Reed Stevenson)