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Mandela Screenwriter Says 12 Years a Slave ‘Sucked Up All the Guilt About Black People’

By Julissa Catalan

William-NicholsonMandela: Long Walk to Freedom screenwriter William Nicholson made some controversial remarks while explaining why he believes his film didn’t receive the acclaim he was anticipating.

While speaking to an audience at the Hay Festival in Wales, Nicholson blamed the success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years of Slave for essentially overshadowing Mandela, saying:

“It didn’t get Oscars. 12 Years a Slave came out in America and that sucked up all the guilt about Black people that was available.”

The film, which is largely based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, documents the life of the iconic anti-apartheid activist–turned–first Black president of South Africa.

According to Nicholson—who spent 15 years writing the script—the U.S. only has an allotted amount of sympathy for Black films, even if one is about American slavery and the other is about South African apartheid.

“They [the audience] 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,” he said. “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. Some things work and some things don’t. You just have to soldier on.”

He continued by adding that Nelson Mandela’s death coincided with the film’s premiere, further overshadowing the film.

“Mandela died as I was in the royal premiere with Will and Kate. Suddenly the word came through that he died. We were deluged with Mandela stuff and after a week we all thought, please, take it away, we’ve heard enough about Mandela,” Nicholson said.

He then goes on to credit himself for the film’s epic speech scenes, saying he wrote most of them himself.

“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,” he said.

Although the film was considered a commercial flop in the U.S., it broke records in South Africa, with the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time.

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25 Comments

  • I totally agree. So sad 2 films could not make the win.

    • He demonstrates twaddle blind arrogance! The point is not to stir White Guilt…but to educate audiences about past wrongs against humanity, so that they will never insult humanity again. His concern is about getting recognition for himself…not lifting humanity!

      • Mike Harper

        Victor – I agree with you 100%!
        Thank you for saying what needed to be said!

      • Kimberly barnes

        A blind person can see this Lou!!!! He wrote it because it was all about him. He used Mandella’s name to make money only not to truely expose and educate. I’m glad he did not get the “American Dollars” he felt he deserved for “such a great film and speeches he wrote himself”. His reward is HIMSELF!!!!

  • Wow…maybe it flopped not because we were all guilted-out but because you took on the project to get awards, clearly not because of your passion for the topic or for Mandela and his sleep-inducing speeches.

  • Or maybe Mandela just wasn’t that good. I saw both movies. 12 years amazed me and left an impression that stayed with me long after I watched the movie. Mandela was good, but not great. I thought the acting was better than the story. At times, I was bored during the movie. I was not surprised that it didn’t win more. It just didn’t deserve it in my opinion.

  • Steph Wms

    As I read this article I was feeling a bit of empathy for Nicholson. After spending 15 years on a project it is understandable he would be disappointed with the way the film was received in the US. HOWEVER…all of that went out the window when he went on to malign Mandela’s speaking ability. I re-read the article. Now, in my mind, his thought process went from being benign, and perhaps not well stated, to insulting. Clearly he is not an ally of diversity and inclusion. It appears to me he was in it for all the wrong reasons and now he’s simply a sore loser. Or maybe…just a loser!

  • Wow, what an ego…

  • This is ignorance at best. Regardless of the nature of any film, the timing of release is important.
    Biographical films almost always do better when the subject has transitioned. Albeit, this is an unfortunate fact, time has born out its truth.

  • I have heard the term “feeling guilt about Black people” and “white guilt” a lot lately. I know that Blacks, Latino’s, women and other are at a disadvantage in this mostly white mans world. I know prejudice and racism is still very prevalent. I however don’t feel guilty for being white. Where did this term come from? Is it just another buzz phrase for detractors to use to muddy up the real issues?

    • Luke Visconti

      There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilt.

      Read this report (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/30/black-incomes-are-up-but-wealth-isnt/), then take a quick tour of your local inner-city hell hole; Gary, Ind.; or Camden or Newark, N.J. If you don’t feel a little guilt, you’re a hard-hearted creep. Why would any so-called civilized nation allow human beings to live like that? As Mark Twain was reported to say, “Christianity is a great religion—we should try it some day.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Perhaps if he had stuck to the truth and not embellish Mr. Mandela’s speeches it would have been more acceptable.
    He was just looking for gains versus reporting the truth. Karma.????

  • I actually planned to buy the Mandela DVD when it come out now I have to think twice. Intent vs Impact. The intent on this movie is to get awards and when that did not happen, William Nicholson goes around blaming all America and Mandela who is a my Hero and a role model for Africa and the whole world. Why did you spend 15 years writing a movie about Mandela, Greed? You did not respect Mandela for his sacrifice but boring on his speaches. Mandela speeches had substance and value. He empowered Africa. I think Niholson got what he deserves, and now angry with the world.

  • What a bloated, overly confidant horse’s rear!

    You, Mr. Director, clearly saw Mandela’s imprisonment as a picnic! Maybe you didn’t think your derogatory words would get back to the U.S.

    Poor little you.

  • The screenwriter should take up a new line of work because he surely is condescending and egomaniacal.

  • A number of responses indicate a great deal of ignorance about Nelson Mandela (or is it racism?). A boring story, boring speeches – wow! Nicholson gave a very accurate description of the life of Nelson Mandela – unquestionably one of the greatest politicians and persons of the 20th century.

  • Wow, cocky much?

  • grannybunny

    Even if its success was not as meteoric, or heralded, as that of 12 Years A Slave, I believe that — over the long haul — the Mandela movie will have staying power, in that it will be used to educate people about Nelson Mandela. It’s a shame that Nicholson seems so bitter and finds it necessary to criticize Mandela’s speaking style. Not everyone is a stem-winding orator. Nelson Mandela spoke through his actions, his courage, his endurance, his ability to forgive, his transcendence of circumstances, his ultimate triumph, his dignified example, etc. His communications may have been quieter, less verbal and less dramatic that those of others, but his lessons resonate and will endure, hopefully forever. The movie was well worth making, and I seriously hope that — over time — Nicholson will derive a sense satisfaction for having done so.

    • Luke Visconti

      They were afraid to assassinate him, and the power of his intellect and the righteousness of his movement brought down a government. I’m not sure what more one man, in prison for most of his adult life, could accomplish. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Michael J. Lowrey

    It is not necessary for one person to be perfect in all things. I have not studied Mandela’s speeches in depth, but it’s not impossible that this iconic figure may have been less than riveting compared to other speechmakers. So bloody what? I know I was inspired when I heard him speak at our AFSCME International Convention some years ago; but of course, our knowledge of his lifetime’s achievements made every word he said ten times as powerful as it would have been coming from somebody who was less of an example for the world.

  • The two films are not comparable just because they are both black subjects. I enjoyed 12 YEARS more because the story had a lot more drama and made for better entertainment than MANDELA. That does not diminish the importance of MANDELA. Some of the best movies that I have seen did not do well at the box office nor did they win any awards. They are considered Indie films. I had already seen the movie MANDELA & DECLERK and so I knew the entire story. Nocholson (the director) should not equate awards to the importance of telling a story. He should be proud that in the years to come educators will be using his film to keep telling this important story to the young ones. I find his comments to be rather disingenuous.

  • Mr. Nicholson, as you well know the work you’ve done speaks for you—kinda pathetic for you to pretend otherwise. But thank you for analysis of your work, it displays a critical mind deep in denial and unworthy of Mandela. It may be hard to admit that it took 15 for you to generate a mediocre product. That you were clearly wrong for the job. Your product needed the brilliance of Elba to make it even worth seeing at all. Blaming the lack of recognition on white guilt, Mandela’s death, etc is truly dumb and shows everyone that in this case, Hollywood got it right. Credit went where it was due, Idris Elba, U2 and of course to Mandela himself. Never even heard of you Mr. Nicholson and I would gladly have proceeded in life that way skipping this brief dull moment of your recognition.

  • The movie did fine in South Africa. Nicholson did nothing to differentiate his mediocre version from the ones that preceded it. It just wasn’t that good.

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