After Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, it seemed that the under-the-radar biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom could have a long run in theatres. However, mixed reviews and a crowded marketplace filled with quality films aimed at adults (including American Hustle, Philomena, Her and The Wolf of Wall Street) did not help the awards season hopeful at the box office. The film only made $27 million worldwide. However, Long Walk to Freedom scribe William Nicholson does not blame the competition for the drama’s failed run in theatres and at the Oscars. Instead, Nicholson explained it was due to the success of 12 Years a Slave.
“12 Years a Slave came out in America and that sucked up all the guilt about black people that was available,” Nicholson told a crowd at Britain’s Hay Festival for literature and the arts. “[Audiences] were so exhausted feeling guilty about slavery that I don’t think there was much left over to be nice about our film.”
Nicholson added that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom tested well with audiences, indicating that it would have solid word-of-mouth. However, The Weinstein Company did not do the film any favors by running a modest marketing campaign while drawing criticism for cancelling a press screening of the biopic at TIFF at the last minute.
Perhaps the British scribe feels a bit burned that despite a solid career of penning historical dramas, including garnering two Oscar nominations for Shadowlands and Gladiator, he has yet to win the screenplay prize. (His adapted screenplay for Les Misérables was also ignored by the Academy a year earlier.) “It didn’t get the kind of acclaim I wanted,” Nicholson admits. “It didn’t get Oscars.”
Nicholson also did no favours by taking aim at Nelson Mandela for making “boring” speeches, which were not rousing enough for a cinematic depiction, claiming he had to write the big dramatic speeches at the end of the film on his own. “I know it sounds outrageous to say a thing like that,” Nicholson says, “But when he came out of prison he made a speech and, God, you fell asleep.”
Although it is easy to understand why he is surprised by the poor’s run, his tone is very bitter and his criticisms do not seem valid or fair. His previous statement suggests that he wanted to write a prestigious film since it was guaranteed Oscar bait, rather than do so to pay tribute to an incredible person. Meanwhile, his thoughts that critics could only champion one film about black oppression and history is problematic. These comments do not put the screenwriter in a good light, as he trivializes the remarkable strength of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom‘s subject, as well as Solomon Northup from 12 Years a Slave.
However, if you are offended by the comments and want to skip his next two films, you may want to hold your breath. Nicholson is the co-screenwriter of Unbroken, the World War II drama from Angelina Jolie due on Christmas Day, and also penned Everest, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin, due on in September 2015. Both films are expected to be serious awards contenders.