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

William Nicholson also blames Nelson Mandela's death during the film's premiere for Mandela overload.

By Julissa Catalan


Mandela: 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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