Last year saw the release of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, a biopic that—despite the best efforts of actor Idris Elba, and the autopilot inertia of U2—failed to attract much critical praise or commercial success. Some might blame that rejection on the film’s own merits, but its screenwriter William Nicholson has another theory: By the time it came out, 12 Years A Slave had “sucked up all the guilt about black people” that was so crucial to its success. Sadly, guilt about black people is a limited resource that really only allows for one harvest per season, much like the avocado.
Nicholson made those remarks before a recent film festival audience in Wales, lamenting that Mandela “didn’t get the kind of acclaim that I wanted. It didn’t get Oscars.” And while one could probably attribute that to other factors, such as not being good enough to deserve them, Nicholson said he believes it’s because American audiences were simply “so exhausted feeling guilty about slavery that I don’t think there was much left over to be nice about our film.” If only white audiences could have taken a breather—say, a year where they could just kick back and not feel guilty about slavery—they might have returned feeling refreshed, ready to feel guilty about apartheid.
In fact, Nicholson continued because no one thought to stop him, the timing was unfortunate in several ways. For one thing, Nelson Mandela also had the impertinence to die right around the time of the film’s premiere, totally ruining its marketing campaign. “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 of these tiresome tributes to Mandela, which made it annoyingly difficult to promote his own tribute to Mandela.
Still, Nicholson also acknowledged—because why stop there?—Mandela may have been doomed from the start, seeing as it had the misfortune to be about Nelson Mandela. Calling the late South African leader “boring,” the screenwriter who was hired to write a film about him, then complain that no one thought it was amazing, continued, “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.” Nicholson then reminded the audience that he wrote most of the far more exciting speeches that you didn’t see, because you’d used up all your guilt for 2013 on 12 Years A Slave and, possibly, the previews for Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Indeed, this story reminds us that, until we begin to look at more organic, hydroponic methods for the growing of guilt about black people, soon there may not even be enough to feed the interest of white writers, who rely on it to get through their own opportunistic screenplays about the black subjects they openly don’t care about.