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Mandela Biopic Screenwriter Blames White Guilt & '12 Years A Slave' For His Film's Lack Of Success

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 2, 2014 5:15 PM
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William Nicholson, the British screenwriter of last year's Nelson Mandela biopic - Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, which starred Idris Elba in the title role - is apparently devastated that his film wasn't quite the critical and commercial hit that he obviously expected it to be, telling the attending audience at The Hays Festival (an annual literature & arts festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Wales for ten days, from May to June) that Oscar voters ignored his film because "12 Years a Slave sucked up all the guilt about black people.

In other words, according to Nicholson, what we call "white guilt" is a finite thing, and there's only so much of it to go around - especially when it comes to Oscar-bait movies that tell stories about black people during prolonged periods of cruel and unjust treatment at the hands of whites.

But all kidding aside (somewhat), the UK's Telegraph says that the 66-year-old Nicholson (whose resume includes critical faves like Gladiator and Shadowlands), who spent 15 years working on his Mandela screenplay adaptation, expected it to do as well as Steve McQueen's slave drama.

"12 Years a Slave came out in America and that sucked up all the guilt about black people that was available [...] They were so exhausted feeling guilty about slavery that I don't think there was much left over to be nice about our film. So our film didn't do as well as we'd hoped, which was a bit heartbreaking [...] We showed it to test audiences very extensively and it got astounding responses. These things are measured in percentages and it was in the high 90s every time. So, honestly, we thought we had a winner. And when it didn't become a winner it was devastating, actually, it was very distressing [...] I really thought it was going to win lots of awards, partly because it's a good story but also because I thought I'd done a really good job and the director had done a really good job. So it has been very tough for me."

Heavy, Mr Nicholson. Heavy.

Forget that the film was quite disappointingly ordinary, considering the extraordinary life lived by its subject, as it kept audiences at an arm's length, serving as not much more than a 2 1/2-hour highlight reel, as if his Wikipedia page was the source material, all-too flattering of the man. Surely Mandela deserved better than what was essentially a walk around the block.

But Nicholson didn't stop there. He must have been drinking that night, because he certainly wasn't shy about much apparently. He also shared his process in writing the biopic, telling the audience that he had to "make up" most of Mandela's speeches used in the film because, according to him, the real speeches were too dull.

"All but one of the speeches were made up by me because his own speeches are so boring. I know it sounds outrageous to say a thing like that, but when he came out of prison he made a speech and, God, you fell asleep. It's a sadness. In all the speeches there's always a good line, but they're not very good."

Now, I can't claim to be an expert orator, nor am I an authority on the power (or lack thereof, according to Nicholson) of Mandela's speeches. But even if I were, I'd say that it takes a certain amount of gall to dismiss the speeches of a man whose words and actions inspired and influenced many, as "boring" and "not very good." 

And even if he felt that way, was it necessary to vocalize? Or is he just bitter about the film's lackluster reception in the USA, despite all the hard work he put into it, including having to write all of Mandela's speeches for the film from scratch?

Listen to Mandela's iconic 1964 impassioned speech - "An ideal for which I am prepared to die" - which he gave before the trial whose verdict would see him imprisoned for nearly 3 decades (a speech considered by some of those who rank these things, as one of the greatest of the 20th century). 

Unfortunately the speeches Nicholson says he wrote for the film, as spoken by Idris Elba, were maybe also considered too "boring" and "not very good" by Academy voters and audiences alike, which contributed to the film's humdrum Stateside reception.

But some questions for you folks: is there enough "white guilt" to go around when it comes to voting on Oscar-bait movies that tell stories about blacks during periods of oppression at the hands of whites? Or is there only so much available for just one of that movie type? And if you're white, and you're reading this, did 12 Years A Slave suck up all the guilt you felt over past injustices against blacks in this country, as Nicholson argues, so much that you simply had none left to give when you saw Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom?

Or do you agree (no matter what your ancestry is) with Nicholson's theory?

<Insert smiley face here>

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  • Davo | June 4, 2014 11:33 PMReply

    Occam's Razor : Long Walk to Freedom had a lousy completely uninteresting poorly written script, crappy acting and a bland sound track.

  • Donella | June 4, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    12 Years a Slave was the better movie.

    Even the United Nations, a constant friend of Nelson Mandela, rose to its feet to acknowledge the work Steve McQueen performed.

    Angry white male resentment, which is not as hidden as the perpetrators would like to believe, a lack of respect for the subject matter, again not easy to hide defeated the chances of the Mandela movie. One positive, however, from that project is Naomi Harris. She did great. I wouldn't have minded if she'd gotten a supporting nomination.

  • Miles Ellison | June 3, 2014 10:42 PMReply

    "All but one of the speeches were made up by me because his own speeches are so boring. I know it sounds outrageous to say a thing like that, but when he came out of prison he made a speech and, God, you fell asleep. It's a sadness. In all the speeches there's always a good line, but they're not very good."

    This is how bad movies about iconic figures get made.

  • Jacqui Causey | June 3, 2014 4:06 PMReply

    I teach film. At the time of the Academy Awards, I had not heard of this film. Perhaps the marketing was as lacking as the film itself.

  • Marie | June 3, 2014 1:14 PMReply

    This writer undermines what may be a legitimate point (the bias of the Academy) with his overemphasis on awards. What struck me about his comments was his focus on lack of awards instead of lack of viewership. Did he make this movie as an Oscar grab or did he make the movie to make people feel something? It seems like it was for the former so I have no sympathy for his complaint. Regardless, I'm looking forward to seeing the film.

  • Hannah | June 3, 2014 12:33 PMReply

    I think we need to come up with a new term that should just fit right in with Nicholson: white jealousy. 12 years a slave was a great film, the screenwriter AND the director are Black, so maybe that's the reason why they were able to make Solomon's story a touching motion picture as opposed to Nicholson and Chadwick who created something mediocre because their film wasn't touching people in their hearts because they themselves couldn't even identify with the struggle and persona of Nelson Mandela. Too bad Mandela's book fell into their hands first. I think a Black South African director and screenwriter would have done an amazing job - but sadly those stories are always always always stolen from the people who should be telling them. And beyond that I wonder why people are so obsessed with comparing 12 years a slave to Mandela - it's different stories, different countries, different times, different characters. The only reason they always feel the need to compare those two movies is because they both evolve around Black characters who were oppressed, abused and discriminated by white people. And of course they both came out in the same year. But why isn't Nicholson angry at some other movie that won the Oscar? Exactly - these other movies were centering on white folks. But I do think he has a point in a way: I can totally imagine that the members of the Academy were sitting there saying "Na, guys, really, one "black movie" is enough to appease everyone". So in the end it's always the same problem: The Academy is not diverse enough to judge movies with Black main characters without bias and unless that changes it will each year be maximum one Black person or so called "Black movie" winning an Oscar.
    I am a white German female film-maker in case that information is interesting for somebody out there.

  • Ol'Skool | June 3, 2014 1:21 PM

    "Nicholson and Chadwick who created something mediocre because their film wasn't touching people in their hearts because they themselves couldn't even identify with the struggle and persona of Nelson Mandela. Too bad Mandela's book fell into their hands first"

    UT OH!!! Ms. Hannah, my German female film-maker friend, we need more folks like you. I mean, you probably don't know this but your above thoughts/opinion has been the heated topic of many discussion at this blog. In fact, Tambay penned a post about it "2013 S&A Highlights: Are There Stories That Should Only Be Told On Film By Black Filmmakers?" which saw 75 readers share their thoughts in that post alone.

    Yep, we've been here before. I am reminded of the uproar following Spike Lee being replaced by Tate Taylor to direct Brian Grazer's James Brown biopic... and the yet to be seen Marvin Gaye biopic... and that Nina Simone thang, some people just ain't feelin' it b/c, well, you know.

    Yes sir, Mr. Nicholson may have a valid complaint but you, I, other African Americans and Andre Seewood (gotta read his piece on "Why Whites Don't Like Black Films") knows exactly why William Nicholson shouldn't have put his hands on this one.

    Thanks for the honest feedback.

  • guest | June 3, 2014 12:08 PMReply

    Walk to Freedom was a BAD Movie. I fell asleep and wished I had my $13 dollars back. This entitled White Man just cannot stand that A Black Man directed 12 YAS and a Black Man wrote the screenplay.

  • Ol'Skool | June 3, 2014 10:12 AMReply

    " I'd say that it takes a certain amount of gall to dismiss the speeches of a man whose words and actions inspired and influenced many, as "boring" and "not very good. And even if he felt that way, was it necessary to vocalize?"

    Why not? Oh, I get it, the truth hurts... but for the courageous, those who harbor no fear of rejection, it sets them free.

    Now, a few more truths. I saw "Mandela" at the Chicago Film Festival, I fell asleep 3 times... IT WAS very boring.

    White guilt? Well, since I am not white I can't speak on their guilt, but in The Butler and "12 Years" there was a common message of white privilege that insured their success. What, you missed it? Listen, in both films films blacks were shot, raped, brutalized and basically treated less than humans... HOWEVER, the offenders (white folks) suffered no retributions in either film. Consequently, HIP-HIP-HOORAY for those "good" films... white guilt is trumped by a message which continues today, that is, "black folks better stay in their place or we got something for their ass." Come on now, I can hear white folks all over America "Fu*k that Mandela movie, he showed blacks how to stand tall and fight back. On the other hand, The Butler and "12 Years" sent the right message... "HEY BLACK PEOPLE, stay stooped over (so we can ride your backs) and wait on the white savior to set you free.

    Lastly, Ava's "Selma"... hmmm, which way will she go? Well, if I was a betting man I'd put my money on "commercially safe".

  • Shanae | June 3, 2014 7:57 AMReply

    Call me crazy, but I agree.

    There were SEVERAL amazing films pertaining to Black life, yet everyone only seemed to notice '12 Years A Slave' - in my opinion, 'Fruitvale Station' was a better film that did not get the recognition it deserved because of '12 Years...' Yet again, we can have several critically acclaimed films about white people, but when it comes to films about Black people, there is only one shining star. It's ridiculous.

  • troublemaker | June 3, 2014 1:32 AMReply

    I think the screenwriter of Mandela is forgetting one very important situation. Mandela died a few days before the US release of the film. So it was very difficult to promote the film. If they promoted the film it would seem to the general public that the producers are capitalizing on Mandela's death. I feel the Oscar voters had that same problem also. If they nominated the film, they would have been accused of only nominating the film, actors, director and screenwriter because Mandela died.

  • zARtan | June 2, 2014 7:56 PMReply

    The Butler and Mandela were simply badly made films with no nuance or subtlety. It is that simple. Stop overanalyzing for the sake of it.

  • Marie | June 3, 2014 12:50 PM

    I haven't seen Mandela yet but The Butler was deeply overrated despite it's critical and commercial success. Butler was poorly structured and written most likely because, based on what I read, the man's life upon which it was based was surprisingly undramatic. The writer's attempt to insert the son character into EVERY POSSIBLE civil rights moment was heavy-handed and completely unbelievable. I was shocked that anyone expected Oscar nominations for any part of that film. Having said that, I do believe that the Academy's lack of diversity affects their choices and I would not be surprised if they could deal with nominating only so many non-white movies and performances.

  • curtis | June 3, 2014 12:18 PM

    The Butler was a huge success. It spent 3 weeks at number 1 at the box office and made over 100 million. It also got good reviews from critics and great word of mouth.

  • Hmm | June 2, 2014 8:12 PM

    What do you thing blogs are for? And actually, The Butler did excellent at the box office. Also, when you spend millions on a film hoping for a decent return, you damn skippy you should be "over analyzing" regarding why you lost your money. There are a plethora of box office films with NO "nuance or subtlety" that have major box office success.

  • Passing By | June 2, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    I was prepared to show some empathy until I read the line about Mandela's speeches not being "so good." ... But I would tend to agree more with GUEST that if anyone feels all the white guilt was sucked out of the room for their project then it would be Lee Daniels. If 12YS hadn't been in contention then, I believe, all of the "white guilt attention" would have gone to Daniels because his piece, also, takes place in a segment in time in this country of great historical import.

    I didn't see "Mandela," and despite his greatness -- for all intense and purposes -- even while living I don't believe Americans, in general, and black Americans, in particular, ever REALLY viewed him with the same reverence as MLK. In other words, what he did for S. Africa was great, but we'd already been through that war -- as a country, a people -- so his struggles within his country weren't new to us.

    AND, as we know all too well, Americans -- even those of us who are black -- are biased towards wanting to see our OWN stories on screen. So with or without "12YS" I don't know if the filmmaker should be so surprised at the lack of love, particularly in the U.S., for this film.

    Not every movie made about old world Europe does well with white American audiences, either. Maybe that's a poor example, but I think you understand.

  • Mel | June 2, 2014 7:27 PMReply

    He was a bit crass but frankly, he's right. The film was a colossal bomb, especially financially (go look at the numbers). Critics seemed to be split down the middle regarding the content but, truthfully, this is often the case when you deal with biopics. There wasn't anything "new" or revelatory with this flick and because of that, 12 YEARS A SLAVE was able to grab the media/PR attention early on creating a strong "buzz" and anticipation.

    Honestly, I'm nervous about the SELMA film because I think it's using the same play book. We already know everything there is to know about MLK, Jr. and we've seen tons of films and docs on him. Unless you're bringing a PROFOUND and somewhat controversial viewpoint--similar to what Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass were planning--you essentially end up with a made-for-tv "castor oil" film, using Sergio's phrase. Also, MANDELA didn't have the prerequisite token "it" white actor/actress du jour that gets white folks excited. Lets be really honest here, do you really think 12 YEARS A SLAVE would have garnered that much attention without Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender acting in it? Don't get me wrong, it would have done well based on McQueen's already stellar body of work but not to the level it's ultimately reached today. My suggestion to Ava: get Pitt on board to act in SELMA, even a small part if need be. You need more than Tom Wilkinson.

  • nelle | June 3, 2014 2:48 AM

    Nicolson's film on Mandela should have been provocative and possibly Oscar worthy. I think it is important to remember that the Academy committee that votes for films are not picking those that demonstrate all types of.blackness. Those individuals pick films that relay back to what they have come to understand (or think they understand) as American blackness. They do not know fanon or Khalil Gibran and I don't they would be able to understand their lives or what they did. Blackness is understood in films as characters who are able to rise above likely impossible situations with the help of some white savior, but they are beaten physically and/or mentally before they get there.

    Then, Nicolson watered and committed any other injustice to portray Mandela's life. And in comparison to 12 years a slave it wasn't promoted, it came out at a bad time, and it didn't show what Mandela was about regardless of black Americans knowledge on him. If he showed the Mandela that was vastly different from MLK (although I strongly don't agree their stories should bee compared) in that he was for violence against the enemy. He did not preach nonviolence until he was released from prison and was running for president under the anc and trc. If Nicolson could have shown that, I guarantee more PEOPLE would have paid to watch it. He shouldn't be looking for white approval of his film.

    And lastly, someone should have told Nicolson a long time ago that hard work does not make a good production or piece.

  • guest | June 2, 2014 7:11 PMReply

    I have a feeling Lee Daniels feels the same way about The Butler.

  • JMac | June 2, 2014 6:22 PMReply

    Oh the hubris of the typical white male. Does it ever have a limit?

  • mawon | June 2, 2014 6:21 PMReply

    And his complete irreverence for his subject probably had something to do with the mediocrity of his film.

  • mawon | June 2, 2014 6:20 PMReply

    See this is what separates great artists from meh artists: the ability to fight against ego and be honest about your work. Butt hurt-ness is not cute, boo boo.

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