‘Mandela’ writer blames film’s failure on ‘guilt-sucking’ ’12 Years a Slave’

Hey, remember “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom?” Six months after its US theatrical release, no one would blame you if it's already slipped to the back of your mind. Despite its prestigious trappings and its unplanned topicality in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death last December, Justin Chadwick's well-intentioned biopic of South Africa's first democratically elected president was among the most prominent of 2013's awards-season hopefuls never to take flight.

Critics were largely unenthusiastic, reserving their praise for the film's lead performances, and audiences couldn't be bothered: “Mandela” took just $8 million in the US, with its global gross of $27 million still falling some way short of the film's production budget. And despite The Weinstein Company's campaign efforts, awards voters were similarly indifferent: Idris Elba managed a Golden Globe nomination, while the BAFTAs rustled up a generous Best British Film nod, but the Academy acknowledged U2's would-be anthemic closing-credits tune and nothing else.  

In a strong, competitive year, few people got particularly worked up about “Mandela's” minimal presence in the awards race. The film was respectable enough, but its conservatively burnished, Richard Attenborough-style approach to history seemed out of time — particularly in a year that saw Steve McQueen's more visceral, more formally arresting “12 Years a Slave” dominating the conversation. 

One person who doesn't agree, unsurprisingly enough, is William Nicholson, the British screenwriter of “Mandela” — a two-time Oscar nominee whose credits include “Shadowlands,” “Gladiator” and “Les Misérables,” and who was evidently banking on a third nod for his work on the biopic. Speaking at Britain's Hay Festival for literature and the arts, Nicholson admitted his disappointment over the film's performance, saying, “It didn't get the kind of acclaim I wanted. It didn't get Oscars.”

That's already a problematic statement: if Oscars are the kind of acclaim you want first and foremost, then chances are you aren't making your serious prestige film for all the right reasons. But it's his explanation for the film's failure that is truly cringe-worthy, as he tartly blames the reigning Best Picture winner for stealing their thunder:   

“'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. Some things work and some things don't. You just have to soldier on.”

Where to begin? Obviously Nicholson labored hard over the project — filleting Mandela's sprawling autobiography into a screenplay is no minor task, well-executed or otherwise — and obviously it smarts when others don't take to the fruits of that labor. But to suggest that either critics or audiences have a finite capacity of interest in black history (regardless of topic or approach) is crass in the extreme. (One might well ask why the success of “Django Unchained” didn't muddy the playing field for McQueen's film.)

Meanwhile, lumping Mandela's story with that of Solomon Northup as equivalent fodder for “guilt about black people” shows markedly little respect for either subject, or indeed for Nicholson's own film — is that really the sole level on which he hoped to engage audiences? If so, perhaps it's not surprising that they stayed away. In the UK, incidentally, “Mandela” opened before “12 Years a Slave,” and still took less than a quarter of the latter film's gross — evidently audiences are only selectively guilt-fatigued. 

Nicholson has been in the business a while — long enough to know, surely, that a warm response from a captive test audience doesn't always augur widespread public interest. (I recall rousing applause for “Mandela” at the media screening I attended; people will cheer the subject as much the film itself.) And while Nicholson is perfectly entitled to be proud of his work on the film, to cite “12 Years a Slave” as its direct artistic equivalent is either dishonest or deluded — you needn't be a devoted advocate of either film to see the differences in their aesthetic and political objectives.

After these bold statements, you'd hope Nicholson might quit while he's behind — but he also took potshots at Nelson Mandela himself, suggesting that he made the freedom fighter a more compelling orator on screen than he was in real life. Mandela's speeches, Nicholson says, were so “boring” that all but one had to be rewritten entirely for the film:  

“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.”

Dare I venture that Nicholson's embellishments didn't make for riveting viewing either? Or is that my guilt exhaustion speaking? Whatever his intentions, this fatuous outburst certainly won't make the film any more fondly remembered.