Best moments of the Oscar front-runners: Facing the challenge of "12 Years a Slave"

Why Steve McQueen's confrontational film stands on the brink of history. Plus: What will win, and what should

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 1, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave."      (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

If “12 Years a Slave” wins the best-picture award at Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, we’ll hear a lot of muttering — and not just on Fox News — about how it was a political decision and how Hollywood is more concerned with how it looks to the outside world than with picking the best movie. Wow, no kidding? Next you’ll tell me that credit-card issuers don’t have my best interests at heart, or that the catfights on “Real Housewives of the Russian Mob” are actually staged. News flash: Everything about the Oscars involves politics and P.R. calculations, in every year. Choosing “Argo” last year, “The Artist” the year before that and “The King’s Speech” the year before that involved a specific kind of soft-focus cultural nostalgia, as well as a flattering ideology about the redemptive or liberatory nature of showbiz.

I have no doubt that some academy members who voted for “12 Years a Slave” actually liked other movies better, but were thinking about history and posterity when they filled out their ballots. From the moment Steve McQueen’s film, adapted from one of the most famous slavery memoirs of the 19th century, premiered in Toronto last fall, it was clear that it posed a major challenge to Hollywood on exactly those issues. “12 Years a Slave” is simultaneously the most ambitious and the most realistic feature film ever made about American slavery (no, I am definitely not counting “Django Unchained”), and the strongest entry on the very short list of serious awards contenders directed by a black person.

That subject, by the way, deserves its own article. Lee Daniels’ “Precious” is the only previous best-picture nominee made by a black director; Daniels and John Singleton (for 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood”) are the two previous best-director nominees. Through the long lens of history, one might argue that Spike Lee’s two most important films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” belong on any list of egregious Oscar oversights. They got two nominations apiece, though neither was nominated for best picture or best director, and neither won anything. (The best-picture winners for those two years would be “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Unforgiven,” which I suppose is only 50 percent atrocious. Denzel Washington was nominated for best actor in “Malcolm X,” and lost to Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.” Don’t ever watch “Scent of a Woman.”)

So yes, the historical potential of this moment is evident to everyone and has played a role in the Oscar campaign, just as it did with Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. But the real reason why “12 Years a Slave” is something of an anomalous Oscar front-runner, one that arrives at the finish line in a dead heat with two radically different and more popular films, is not simply because it’s a story about slavery and racism, or because Hollywood feels itself being dragged to the altar by white guilt and political correctness. (Hollywood loves white guilt and political correctness!) It’s because “12 Years a Slave” is a challenging and sometimes confrontational film, one that portrays not just the historical institution of slavery (which has existed in most human societies) but white supremacy, a system of thought that poisons everything and everyone it touches, and continues to poison the political life of the United States decades after its official demise.

I can’t blame anyone for feeling a certain discomfort with “12 Years a Slave”; it is meant to provoke discomfort and absolutely isn’t the kind of inspirational, humanistic saga that typically wins Oscars. Because of its subject matter and its timing, its Brad Pitt-ness and the hype that attended its premiere, “12 Years a Slave” has been received as a mainstream film – Hollywood counteracting “Gone With the Wind” at last, or something – when it arguably has more in common with the art-house cinema of Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noé than with uplifting hokum like Spielberg’s “Amistad.”

I have written previously about how “12 Years a Slave” fits in with McQueen’s previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame” (neither of which is about race at all), in a trilogy of works about the political economy of the body under conditions of extreme contradiction: the prison hunger strikes of Northern Ireland in the ‘80s, the overlap between the sexual and commodity economies of contemporary Manhattan, the atavistic property relations that underlay the supposed graciousness of the antebellum South. McQueen was an important visual artist for years before he turned to cinema, and even as he’s edged closer to mainstream narrative filmmaking he continues to think in terms of composition and juxtaposition, of revealing or suggestive tableaux, of the story as a sequence of contrasting or colliding images rather than a seamless flow.

Many people have written about the most memorable and horrifying sequence in “12 Years a Slave,” the one in which Epps, the sadistic, Col. Kurtz-like slaveowner played by Michael Fassbender, forces Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to whip Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the enslaved woman who is Solomon’s friend and Epps’ lover. (I know that word is problematic, at best, in this context, but Epps certainly loves her, although the feeling may not be mutual.) Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, working in old-school 35mm film, stays close to the faces and bodies of Solomon, Epps and Patsey — a man struggling to hold onto his soul, another who lost his long ago, and a woman determined to endure everything — avoiding both extreme close-ups or the detachment of the long shot. There are moments of visceral horror, as when we see a mist of blood rise from Patsey’s back, but the real horror lies in Solomon’s realization that to survive he must give up everything, all dignity and all sense of honor, and become corrupted by the same evil that has corrupted his master.

This scene is juxtaposed against one earlier in the picture that’s just as hard to watch, but for a different reason. When the vicious overseer played by Paul Dano orders Solomon hanged after a confrontation between the two, the lynching is interrupted partway through, but Solomon is left dangling from a tree, his boots scraping the ground just enough to keep him alive. McQueen and Bobbitt hold this wide shot for a couple of minutes, but it feels like hours or days. The scene would be bucolic, even restful, if not for the black man slowly suffocating at its center. Cicadas sing, the sun moves through the sky and the plantation slaves and white overseers move through an ordinary summer day of work, not even looking at him. This scene is not about Solomon’s corruption, since he has risked death to stand up for himself; it’s about the corruption of the world around him, which has abandoned ordinary decency and accepted the idea that he’s not a human being.

But everyone touched by the slave economy in “12 Years a Slave” is permanently contaminated by it. We see Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a supposedly enlightened and well-meaning planter, who eschews racial bigotry and takes a benevolent attitude toward Solomon, but cannot resist the power and logic of the “special institution” (because no one can). We see Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who seems to have a non-platonic interest in Solomon but has no outlet for her libidinal desires except her vicious treatment of Patsey. In a scene that verges on surrealism, we see Alfre Woodard as the black wife, or privileged concubine, of a plantation owner, drinking tea on the porch and being served by slaves. (Although such arrangements were unusual and in some places illegal, they certainly happened, especially in the Deep South where the big plantations functioned as self-governing fiefdoms.)

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley resist both racial essentialism and liberal escape hatches: No one gets out unscathed, black or white, not even the indomitable Patsey, who openly yearns for death. When Solomon returns to his family in the North, a purportedly free man, he has learned that freedom is a fiction for anyone in his position (or maybe anyone, period). Is that philosophically valid? Maybe so. Does it ooze Oscar-y goodness? Not all that much, but this year is not quite like other years.

So, yes, that’s my official best-picture pick, and given the available options, it’s also the right choice. (I’m still bitter that the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” wasn’t even nominated.) Here’s how the rest of the ballot looks, in terms of who will actually win, and who probably should.

Best Director I’ve come around to the dominant theory that Alfonso Cuarón will win this award, and “Gravity” will win the evening’s biggest trove of awards (by far), while being denied the big prize. There’s a strong current of opinion that Cuarón has showed us the way forward for digital cinema, and dazzled us with his technical command — and that maybe he’ll tell a real story next time around. I’d probably vote for McQueen, but I have no complaints here.

Best Actress Even Dylan Farrow’s renewed sexual-abuse allegations, and three weeks of painful and protracted navel-gazing about an unknowable family incident more than 20 years ago, could not deter Cate Blanchett from her inevitable date with Oscar. Personally, I found “Blue Jasmine” as culturally disconnected and self-indulgent as most of Woody Allen’s recent work, and Blanchett’s actorly performance right on the knife edge of self-parody. You could give it to Sandra Bullock, for playing so much of “Gravity” inside of a 9-foot cube of LEDs, or Amy Adams for her amazing wardrobe in “American Hustle.” But the best performance in this group was probably Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County,” a movie botched by Harvey Weinstein that almost no one saw.

Best Actor It’s time for the McConaughey-ssance to reach its culmination with a statuette, right? I’m aware there are various problems with the portrayal of the early years of AIDS (and even of Ron Woodroof’s story) in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but McConaughey has proven himself over and over as an actor who can rise above troubled material, and none of those issues are his doing. This sounds like a dis on McConaughey, and I don’t mean it that way, but I think I’d vote for everyone else in the category first, in this order: Leonardo DiCaprio (for the role of his career in “The Wolf of Wall Street”), Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” Ejiofor, and Christian Bale in “American Hustle.”

Supporting Actress It’s going to be very close between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence, and let’s be honest: It’s a near-unknown versus a young superstar who’s settling in for a long run as most beloved actress in Hollywood. I like them both a lot, but I’m sorry June Squibb never even got a look in this category; she redeems “Nebraska” from lugubriousness every time she shows up.

Supporting Actor Jared Leto came back from his rock ’n’ roll retirement and got critics and audiences eating out of his hand as Rayon, McConaughey’s trans-woman sidekick in “Dallas Buyers Club.” He’ll win, but I’d go for Fassbender in “12 Years,” as a man eaten out from the inside by a level of power over others no one should ever have.

Best Animated Feature “Frozen” will win; Hayao Miyazaki’s bittersweet final masterpiece “The Wind Rises” has no shot, but it’s great that it was nominated.

Cinematography Clearly Emmanuel Lubezki gets this for all the high-tech digital wizardry involved in capturing “Gravity.” I wish we lived in a world where Oscar voters preferred Bruno Delbonnel’s witty, autumnal 35mm photography for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” But then I wouldn’t get to complain so much!

Costume Design Oh, my: “American Hustle” and its outrageous mid-‘70s fashions all the way, and this might be the only major Oscar that movie wins.

Film Editing A toss-up between “American Hustle” and “Gravity,” but I suspect the meticulous construction of Cuarón’s space opera wins out. (It’s the right choice.)

Production Design Between the same two as the editing award, and I expect it’ll break the same way. But this is also the only category where Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” might come away an Oscar winner; if there was ever a movie where production design was the whole story, that was it.

Adapted Screenplay John Ridley wins for “12 Years a Slave,” as he should. It’s entirely possible that film will win exactly two Oscars: This one, and best picture.

Original Screenplay There’s a lot of sentiment in this category for Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a movie that was beloved by many industry people but failed to find an audience.

Documentary Feature In one of the strongest doc lineups in Oscar history, the choice appears to be between Joshua Oppenheimer’s wrenching and bizarre “The Act of Killing” and Morgan Neville’s rousing pop-music odyssey “20 Feet From Stardom.” I love both but would certainly vote for “Killing,” one of the year’s distinctive works.

Foreign-Language Film This category’s no longer an annual embarrassment, which is huge progress. Paolo Sorrentino’s eye-popping meditation on Roman decadence, “The Great Beauty,” is the long-established favorite (and would get my vote). If academy voters actually watched their screeners they’re likelier to vote for Belgium’s “Broken Circle Breakdown” or the Danish psychological thriller “The Hunt.”

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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