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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 2, 2014 at 5:15PM

Screenwriter Of 'Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' Blames White Guilt & '12 Years A Slave' For His Film's Lack Of Success
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Idris/Mandela

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>

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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