When I assess my feelings about supposed Best Picture frontrunner 12 Years a Slave, a film I ultimately disliked save the knockout performances and select unshakable parts, there’s a voice in my head telling me, “You’re kinda eating your own words.” I’ve been very vocal about my adoration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and a lot of that love springs from the appreciation and acknowledgment that we’ve been gifted an epic film about black history, from a black director, that unflinchingly and unapologetically depicts the racist atrocities that have stained our country’s past. Fast-forward (or, rather, wind the clock back) to Steve McQueen’s 1800s-set slavery horror show, and you’re ostensibly looking at the same thing. So, the objective now is to point out the differences.
In this case, the most startlingly ironic thing is, when compared to Lee Daniels, of all directors, McQueen doesn’t seem to know the difference between the unflinching and the gratuitous. There are lengthy, necessary scenes in 12 Years a Slave, particularly one in which female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is whipped until she’s inches from death, that are unspeakably, justifiably devastating, and may well stick with you for life. But more often, McQueen’s formal relentlessness, on both aural and visual levels, achieves a multifaceted and (likely) unintended punishment, in that we’re forced to not just stare at hard, unsettling truths, but to endure McQueen’s grandiose and precedent-taking technique. Countless naysayers have criticized Daniels’s effort for being “all over the place,” but, unlike McQueen, the Butler director imbues his film with soul, vibrant personality, a more nuanced flow, a better handling of characters, and even gonzo humor, all while transcending an episodic script by generally refusing to compromise. And yet, next to the deeply sobering, completely humorless, better costumed, better photographed, and (as strange as this sounds) comparatively conservative 12 Years a Slave, The Butler looks like the freak in the room, which puts the former film leaps ahead when it comes to the Oscar race.
Many headlines have been devoted to what looks like history in the making: a batch of Oscar nominees with more people of color, from in front of and behind the camera, than ever before. That certainly seems to be what’s coming, and from this film alone, you can pencil in, with decent confidence, at least four black nominees. The one who seems to be a surefire lock is Nyong’o, whose debut performance is getting rabid, deserved raves, and who currently stands as Oprah Winfrey’s strongest competition in the Supporting Actress field. Eligible for the same category, Pariah breakout Adepero Oduye is also extraordinary as Eliza, a woman whose children are robbed from her in a harrowing scene that rightly evokes the German Holocaust, but her part is likely to pale alongside Nyong’o’s meatier, and even more heartrending, role. As lead character Solomon Northup, a free man who’s forced to descend into slavery among the unfortunate legions of his own oppressed people (a complex class clash McQueen irresponsibly under-examines), the great Chiwetel Ejiofor does all he can to enliven his half-realized character, and that his turn is quite emotive puts him in better standing than, say, Forest Whitaker as the black actor to beat in the Best Actor field. (Surely there could, and probably will, be multiple black nominees in this category, but forgive me for cynically thinking that the Academy has quota-filling practices.)
McQueen’s shot at a nod probably isn’t as strong as those of Ejiofor and Nyong’o, or even that of John Ridley, who penned the Adapted Screenplay (and would also add to the black-nominee tally), but I’m thinking he gets into the Best Director category here, in part because, as an artist, the industry seems to take him as seriously as he takes himself. And as for the director’s go-to muse, Michael Fassbender, it looks like the actor may finally be headed toward his first nomination, as Supporting Actor, for his snarly, despicable role as plantation owner Edwin Epps. The supporting field loves a good villain, and Epps, albeit, again, half-realized beyond the actor’s valiant efforts, absolutely fits the bill.
Given its period, its parade of days-of-yore Costumes, its booming Hans Zimmer Score, its near-oppressive Sound design, and its fantastic Cinematography (at least one shot, of a letter burning down to the last ember in total darkness, is one of the year’s absolute best), 12 Years a Slave looks, at this stage, to be this year’s Lincoln, insofar as it’s poised to collect the largest haul of nods. But does that make it your Best Picture front-runner? Hmm…that sounds like a question for Argo.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Steve McQueen; Best Actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor; Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong’o; Best Supporting Actor, Michael Fassbender; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Editing; Best Costume Design; Best Sound Mixing.
Possibilities: Best Original Score; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Supporting Actress, Sarah Paulson; Best Art Direction.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actress, Adepero Oduye.