Watching racism reenacted onscreen makes many audience members uncomfortable, and that's exactly what money-driven studio films try to avoid. If your goal is to rake in the dough, you better make sure your film is enjoyable. "12 Years a Slave," for all its great qualities, is not that enjoyable (unless you focus only on the cinematic artistry). Most dramatic race-related pictures aren't, but this year has seen a particularly high number of racially-charged films succeed at the box office. "42" kicked things off in April with $95 million domestically. Focusing on a baseball icon and keeping the film family friendly with a PG-13 rating helped, but the Jackie Robinson biopic still has plenty of race-related violence and language.
More on point are "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station." The Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey-starring "true story" chronicling Eugene Allen's service at the White House has attracted more than $113 million to date and could be in store for more if it garners Oscar attention in January. The Weinstein-backed film tackles race politics both factual and fabricated with the heavy, in-your-face tone Daniels' is making his trademark, but it also earned a PG-13 rating and features moments of humor, love, and a [semi-SPOILER alert] happy ending. "Fruitvale Station" is most likely the better comparison for "12 Years a Slave" among recent releases. The R-rated true story certainly has more moments of levity than "12 Years a Slave," but director Ryan Coogler's attempts toward neutrality and restraint regarding over-sentimentalization are paralleled by McQueen in "12 Years." Both are independent features. Both have loftier goals than just dollars and cents. Both may come to bear similar box office totals, as well ("Fruitvale took in about $16 million, which would be disappointing for "12 Years").
Still, with awards season lurking and Brad Pitt's Plan B production company attached, I can't help but think "12 Years a Slave" is more likely to over-perform than under-perform. If it turns out to be the Best Picture nominee (and serious contender to win) some are predicting, the best box office comparison could actually be the 2005 Best Picture winner, "Crash." Paul Haggis' film controversially stole the Best Picture prize from Ang Lee's heavily favored frontrunner "Brokeback Mountain" after pulling in $54.5 million domestically ($28.5 less than "Brokeback"). What was rumored to have won over Academy voters to the film with more negative reviews was the appeal of its large ensemble cast to the Academy's biggest voting contingent: actors (that, and many theories about a homophobic Academy).
"12 Years a Slave" also features a large, Academy-friendly ensemble cast, with four nominees in the credits (Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti and Quvenzhane Wallis, albeit the latter in basically a cameo) and a handful of regular candidates in Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano (who wasn't nominated for "There Will Be Blood?" Really?). Both films are obviously also focused on America's horrid history of race relations (though in very different ways). While the cast could help "12 Years" in the Best Picture race, especially with "Gravity," there aren't many names on the bill known for pulling in big box office. No one can even pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor's name (Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for), let alone point him out in a line up (he's appeared almost exclusively in small, supporting roles). The same goes for Michael Fassbender. Despite co-starring in "Inglourious Basterds" and "X-Men: First Class," the German-born Irish-native hasn't been able to carry a film alone. The best box office bet is obviously Brad Pitt, but look no further than last year's "Killing Them Softly" to see his struggles with independent fare (and his role in "12 Years" is very small).
Yet with all the superficial commonalities between "12 Years a Slave" and "Crash," McQueen's film may actually have more in common with the Best Picture loser that year, "Brokeback Mountain." Some claim Ang Lee's critically lauded "gay cowboy movie" lost out to Paul Haggis' racial drama because it was too controversial, too unsettling, and too grim for Academy voters. All of these adjectives could just as well describe "12 Years a Slave." It will be controversial simply because anything focusing on slavery always upsets someone. The content is undoubtedly unsettling, and we've already gone over the hard line the film draws against flippancy. It's a serious film unwilling to spare the audience a moment of respite when its lead character received none. Whether the "why so serious" curse plagues "12 Years" at the Oscars is a question better suited for February. What matters now is whether "12 Years a Slave" will utilize its "essential viewing" tag to earn "Brokeback" dollars and "Crash" Oscars.