The folks here at Indiewire have made our opinion of Steve McQueen's racially-charged true story "12 Years a Slave" pretty clear: We love it. Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn gave the film an A+ after its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, saying "McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there." Senior writer Peter Knegt labeled it the #1 movie to see this October, a month packed with fine films like "All is Lost" and Palme d'Or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color." We're not the only ones in full support of McQueen's triumphant third feature. "12 Years" is sitting pretty with an A- grade on Criticwire.
In light of such critical adulation, the question becomes what good will come of it. After all, the purpose of such lofty praise is to get as many eyeballs as possible on the exquisite piece of art being hailed. "12 Years a Slave" faces a number of challenges at the box office, while the timing of its release creates a compelling dynamic with other race-related releases of the past few years. The most obvious--but also the most flawed--comparison is to last year's Oscar-winning "Django Unchained." On paper, both films are awards heavyweights. Both films take on the controversial topic of slavery. Both films feature talented thespians, though "Django" certainly has the edge in star power (not to mention it was a wide, Christmas release).
Quentin Tarantino's $425 million grossing picture has the advantage in a number of categories when it comes to mass appeal. "Django Unchained" was told through the director's trademark highly-stylized lens. It had an incredible amount of violence, but none of it felt as authentic as what's depicted in "12 Years a Slave." Tarantino's film allowed audience members to enjoy themselves--albeit somewhat uncomfortably--in what turned out to be both a literal and allegorical revenge tale. The satisfaction found in seeing racist oppressors get their just comeuppance no doubt bolstered that film's box office. Will the lack of such fantastical qualities damage "12 Years a Slave?"
Possibly, but not necessarily. Plenty of densely dramatic motion pictures have been successful at the box office, and some of them made it because of they were sold as being historically significant. Audiences felt an obligation to see the films due to what was seen as vital subject matter. For example, "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's Best Picture-winning Holocaust drama from 1993, raked in more than $321 million globally despite its grim tone and three hour plus running time. Spielberg made magic happen again in 1998 with "Saving Private Ryan." The war epic remained in theaters for more than nine months en route to $481 million worldwide in part because of the unusually gripping--and equally unsettling--battle scenes.