Did you know that “Tropical Heat,” a Canadian-produced, late-night CBS detective show from the early 1990s, was a major factor in the overthrow of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic? If your answer is “no,” don’t feel bad … Neither did Rob Stewart, the show’s star. The events surrounding Stewart’s discovery that Nick Slaughter – a character he had played over 20 years ago – was huge in Serbia, and his subsequent trip to the country, are the subject of “Slaughter Nick For President,” a documentary co-directed by Stewart himself.
The bizarre trip to Serbia that forms the backbone of “Slaughter Nick for President” took place in 2009, right before Stewart landed the recurring role of Roan on the popular CW show, “Nikita.” Since then, Stewart has worked steadily on major shows, but at the time he was a down-on-his-luck actor, literally living in his parents’ basement.
As he explains in the documentary, Stewart had spent years being embarrassed that his biggest role was a wisecracking, frequently bare-chested detective on a low-budget crime show. All that changed when he discovered that “Tropical Heat” (AKA “Sweating Bullets” in the USA) had been not only the one bright spot on Serbian TV during the brutal Yugoslav Wars, but that the light-hearted heroism of Nick Slaughter had been a profound inspiration to the young people participating in the massive, non-violent demonstrations that ultimately drove Milosevic from power.
While “Slaughter Nick For President” is an interesting and entertaining narrative on its own – and a real treat for us “Tropical Heat” fans! – it takes on a deeper sense of importance in the context of the civil unrest currently happening in America. Interspersed with vignettes of the affable Rob Stewart appearing on off-kilter Serbian TV shows, allowing himself to be talked into starring in a commercial for black-market harddrives, and performing “Slaughter Nick, Serbia Salutes You” with a popular punk band, are serious interviews with people who were deeply involved in the Serbian protest movement. Indeed, the film is dedicated, “to all those who peacefully resist tyranny,” and a main theme is that, in the age of global communication, none of us really know the depth of the impact we have on other people. What was considered throwaway entertainment in North America became a lifeline to people on the other side of the world; a way to escape the misery of their circumstances, and an affirmation that hope and laughter could overcome desperation and misery.
The transformation in Stewart himself, over the course of his experience, is fascinating. What starts off as a badly-needed ego boost (“Here, you’re like some kind of god,” one young woman in a throng of Nick Slaughter fans tells him), turns into a moving and humbling experience for the middle-aged actor. As Stewart realizes that his work has – completely unbeknownst to him – been deeply meaningful to an entire country, his focus shifts; he goes from reveling in his new-found celebrity status, to trying to understand what the Serbian people went through, and how a tongue-in-cheek Crimetime After Primetime TV show could have been so important to them. The film’s exploration of these questions gives it a heart that far transcends the quirky appeal of its “fifteen minutes of fame” premise.
It is timely and significant that “Slaughter Nick For President” reminds American viewers that the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (who died in prison while on trial for war crimes) was accomplished through creative, non-violent mass action. Rather than directly confront the regime, which would only have resulted in bloodshed and further crackdowns, Serbian dissidents – influenced by the character of Nick Slaughter – used humor and performance activism to build support and communicate their message. Although, in America, that legacy is continued by the likes of Rev. Billy and The Yes Men, the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson bear little resemblance to the techniques that were so successful in deposing Serbia’s hated president.
It is intriguing to think that the story of “Slaughter Nick” may come full circle: after inspiring a generation of Serbians to dismantle an abusive political system, the success of that effort may help a generation of American youth figure out how to do the same thing. As Nick Slaughter proved, episode after episode, a broad grin and a positive attitude can be a lot more powerful than bullets and fists.
“Slaughter Nick For President” is available for instant viewing on Amazon and iTunes. It is well worth watching, both for its “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” twists of fate, and its surprising relevance to contemporary society.