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by Eric Kohn
February 28, 2014 2:11 PM
20 Comments
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Indiewire's Film Critic Picks the Oscars: If '12 Years a Slave' Doesn't Win, All Is Lost

There are great movies and important movies, but rarely do those two qualities meet on the global stage of the Academy Awards. Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is the first in ages to offer that opportunity. In the half year since it gobsmacked audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, "12 Years a Slave"  has earned its establishment credentials with plaudits from black history scholars and Harry Belafonte alike. These nods of approval allow McQueen's achievement safe passage to mainstream canonization, but they don't confirm its aesthetic powers. That comes from seeing the movie on its own terms, not through its implicit linking of past and present, or its capacity to bring a dark chapter in American history to vivid life. These entry points would mean nothing if "12 Years a Slave" were also not a beautiful work of art.

In that regard, it's hardly alone in this year's best picture category, which makes history in its own right by displaying the range of possibilities afforded by individualistic filmmakers working within and around the Hollywood studio system. Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" and Spike Jonze's "Her" both utilize technology in innovative ways without negating the lasting power of a single telling closeup. Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" manages to explore a tense survival tale while sneaking in sly critiques of the industrial system responsible for it through a canny manipulation of perspective. David O. Russell's "American Hustle" is a wacky, flamboyant caper that simultaneously harkens back to a better era of American comedies and represents its filmmaker's scrappy, self-satisfied technique when allowed to reach its potential. Even "Philomena," a gentle whisper of a movie, ultimately arrives at a thoughtful indictment of institutionalized religion. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is Scorsese gone wild, chastising capitalism in its own vernacular, and we're all the better for it.

Still, none maintain the holistically satisfying dimensions of "12 Years a Slave." Its layered appeal starts with Chiwetel Ejiofor's endlessly troubled face, his sense of peril saying more than any crass music cue could possibly do. The diegetic music — Solomon Northup's violin, which he's forced to play under awful circumstances by his lunatic overlord (Michael Fassbender), the moving spirituals hummed at the cotton fields — provide an elegiac tone that's deeply affecting while always rooted in this carefully detailed world. John Ridley's screenplay probes the environment with an eye for details, by taking the larger historical framework into account but never turning up the volume.

There's a thread of urgency to the situation. The slaves whisper among themselves about survival tactics, their master yells at them about laboring the fields, and yes, Brad Pitt shows up with a messianic glow in the final act to decry the entire institution. But nobody places these events in any context outside of the cycle in which we witness them.

Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery, provides an ideal entry point for encountering this madness in linear fashion until time stops having any meaning. By implication, it's a slavery movie for the ages, one that manages to comment on the bleakness of the scenario while considering its ramifications in the present. But that extraction never takes on overt definition. When Northup is strung up by a resentful carpenter (Paul Dano) and left to hang for minutes on end, the resulting long take defines the movie's brilliance in a single package: It conveys a genuinely terrible moment while allowing it to simply sit there in front of your eyes, like a living canvas, open to interpretation while maintaining specificity. At times like a fusion of experimental art and literary fiction, "12 Years a Slave" foregrounds textures and feelings; it uses the medium's capabilities to tell a story and comment on the limitations of storytelling at the same time. You have to experience it to know why it matters.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

Of course, McQueen's ability to tackle the institution of slavery from a measured point of view has given "12 Years a Slave" the credibility to make this far. The precedent for such an accomplishment was no less than 20 years ago, when "Schindler's List" managed to become more than a movie and receive institutional acceptance as a historical landmark. People tend to forget the shrewd, cynical first act of Steven Spielberg's movie, which soaks in the luxury of Oskar Schindler's comfortable existence before unveiling the bleak emptiness of concentration camp experiences in the later scenes. Yet its triumphant finale, with a weepy Liam Neeson and contemporary documentary footage of survivors, backed away from the prospects of the daring creativity in its earlier scenes.

By contrast, "12 Years a Slave" never backs down. It's a daring snapshot of hopelessness that functions as a gripping survival narrative while leaving open the possibility that no amount of survival is ever enough. It's a radical, provocative statement on the dangers of a society operating like a closed system. It casts a searing gaze with vulgar intensity that outdoes even "Spring Breakers," to say nothing of "The Wolf of Wall Street," the year's other features with the audacity to explore ugly antics by burrowing inside them. They do so with impressive results, but "12 Years a Slave" expands on its critical outlook with unparalleled delicacy.

The scene in which the abused, broken-down Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) begs Northup to kill her conveys the brutal finality of her conditions, but it's also an efficient means of building the framework for the character's desperation. When Northup finally gets his ride home, she collapses in soft focus behind him, like an elemental light particle dwindling out of existence. This subtle approach, in which passing nuances say more than monologues or other handy signposts, allows "12 Years a Slave" to accrue a painterly quality unlike anything produced by a commercial studio in recent memory. Nothing else in contention for the best picture Oscar comes close.

Whether or not the Oscars exist to acknowledge first-rate cinema or first-rate campaigns, this one deserves to go all the way. If it doesn't win, the Academy has collectively — if not consciously — rejected an unparalleled opportunity to recognize the strongest achievement in motion pictures released last year. Should "12 Years a Slave" lose, the outcome will amount to a statement of carelessness and naiveté on the part of the only voting body with the strength in numbers to correct clichés associated with American movies' downward-spiraling dumbness. Fortunately, even if we don't see "12 Years a Slave" onstage this Sunday, when the hype dies down, we'll still have "12 Years a Slave."


20 Comments

  • MicaHeeramunavu@yahoo.com | March 3, 2014 12:50 PMReply

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  • Roger Dillon | March 1, 2014 6:16 PMReply

    the only statement of carelessness and naiveté is on the part of the author who doesn't appear to understand what the Oscars are

  • Joe H. | March 1, 2014 12:43 PMReply

    It's an overrated film, not even in my top 10. Wolf of Wall Street and Gravity are the two best films of the year. 12 Years a Slave is unbearably disassociave. All the characters drift from frame to frame with very little development, and the story progresses with almost no structure. It's an important story to know, but like the Pianist in 2002, it simply doesn't make for a good cinematic experience. There isn't enough story to hold up the running time or the characters.

  • stp | March 2, 2014 4:18 PM

    "All the characters drift from frame to frame with very little development, and the story progresses with almost no structure." -

    Sounds like Gravity to me.

  • Lala | March 1, 2014 11:16 AMReply

    Completely false. Yes, "12 Years a Slave" is a great film, but it's one that we've all seen before: the conventional good film. It tells a great tale, but takes very few risks in doing so (and if you think that it is risky in its explicit content, it's actually very weak - view "Django Unchained"). "Gravity", for example, is something none of us has seen before. It's fresh, it's beautiful, and has captured more audiences than any of the other films nominated. Could I believe that it could possibly have changed the future of cinema? Sure. Could I say the same for "12 Years a Slave"? Not at all. That film, unfortunately, could have been made by any other director and have looked the same.

    This is a "Forrest Gump"/"Pulp Fiction" battle all over again. Yes, "Gump" was a fine film, but it was oh so weak compared to the innovation of Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction". Granted, "12 Years a Slave" was much better and deep than "Forrest Gump", but they fall around the same lines of convention. In fact, because "Forrest Gump" is much more Hollywood-y than "12 Years a Slave", it's actually going to be remembered for a long time. "12 Years a Slave" is neither super cheesy, nor is it very innovative, which is why it's going to be forgotten, just like the incredible Best Picture nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild".

    I'm not saying "Gravity" should win, however. As innovative as it is, it's story may let it lose a few points, which is why it's safe to say that "Nebraska" (which you haven't seen at all, it seems) is the deserving (but unlikely) winner of the race. No, it's not about slavery (which seems like the only reason "12 Years a Slave" would win the Oscar), but it's an equally beautiful film with breathtaking cinematography and, well, it's again something we've seen little of in the past.

  • j | March 1, 2014 10:31 AMReply

    It was a good film ,i dont think it was a great film i doubt it will win .Maybe in certain categories i think the heavy handed nature of the director .Will hinder things for this film winning anythng ,we've seen it already .

  • Chris L. | February 28, 2014 9:10 PMReply

    I hope it wins, and also that if John Ridley is awarded for Adapted Screenplay, he makes just enough room in his thank-yous to call out those feckless Academy voters who casually broadcast their refusal to see the film, per recent reports. Not likely, I'm sure, but the vast Sunday night audience might benefit from some perspective on how/why these awards are given - and how the membership's view of what is "important" can vary based on demographic and cultural factors, if not outright bias. (See also "Brokeback Mountain," 2005's erstwhile frontrunner.)

    Once the Academy's facade of integrity (or what's left of it) is removed, just maybe its higher-ups will be motivated to seek greater diversity in the ranks. Hey, we can dream - that's what movies are for, eh?

  • MaxJulian | February 28, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    This country - the US - is not ready to deal with slavery/racism/white supremacy, so there is no way that a film of this calibre wins. No, I fully expect one of the other vapid nominees to win. All will not be lost. Its been lost for a long time.

  • Jay Zabriskie | February 28, 2014 5:35 PMReply

    Probably the best critique of this film I've read. I agree completely and fully expect the Academy to do the right thing for a change.

  • Lala | March 1, 2014 11:19 AM

    By the right thing, you mean nominate "Inside Llewyn Davis"? Or reward "Nebraska"? Sorry Jay, it seems the Academy have lost its chance at doing the 'right thing' (though it can compensate for its foolishness by giving the big prize to "Gravity", "Nebraska" or "Dallas Buyers Club". You know, not do what the public pressures the voters to do, reward [for once] the better film!).

  • Pablo | February 28, 2014 5:21 PMReply

    If GRAVITY loses, all is lost. Films are not just an "endlessly troubled face", not just something that seems to be "cool", not just something we can show off in front of our friends (while wearing a monocle and smoking from a pipe) because of having watched it. Steve McQueen knows how to walk on the frontier between such films and a good film. He focuses too much on the "look" losing sincerity and turning his films into something pretentious, giving away the oportunity of fully connecting with the audience. We have seen in previous years how "cool" films that will fall in the oblivion won a BEST PICTURE award (i.e. The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker, etc.). I still have hope in the OSCAR being able to throw a bit of light on the path of making astonishing films and not just nice ones.

  • Jackhoffsky | February 28, 2014 2:55 PMReply

    I thought "12 Years" was astonishing and beautiful. But I don't think it was the best film of the year. Much of the acting landed with an obvious 'thud' in some scenes (this is actually a complement due to the heavy nature of the piece), but in some places it was awkward and disjointed. The ended was cumbersome and incomplete. Michael Fassbender, however, can out-act everyone on that damn list and I do agree that if he doesn't get recognized... all is certainly lost.

    I'm not vying for "American Hustle," I just think it was a finer crafted film with a lot of controlled chaos that is more difficult to achieve than a linear narrative like "12 Years," and the Academy sometimes favors that level of collective craftsmanship (think "Crash" verses "Brokeback Mountain").

    My personal favorite is "Nebraska" as it falls in the style of quirky/sweet in lines of films like "The Artist." It's simplicity is so strongly executed it's hard not to appreciate the details of the symbolisms in the film (the sky, for example). I understand why "12 Years" is on the list, but it doesn't have the emotional punch that (your reference to) "Shindler's List" did with the girl in the red coat - the point in the movie when the audience emotionally gets choked up with a collective 'getting it' and silent understanding as the narrative and the weight of its meaning merge into a well-constructed "wow" moment before moving on with the story. It happens with tension ("American Hustle" and the casino party), it can happen with bonding (stealing the compressor in "Nebraska"), moments of survival (figuring out the landing thrusters in "Gravity"), etc. "12 Years" just had one continuous struggle... which was excellently portrayed in one of the most brilliant films I've ever experienced (and it was an experienced).

    It doesn't mean if it loses, 'all is lost.'

  • Lala | March 1, 2014 11:21 AM

    Well put.

  • Matt | February 28, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    It's the best and most important film of the year, it fits the prize. Seems like members aren't watching it though because it's too 'brutal' but they had no problem giving No Country for Old Men, The Departed, The Silence of the Lambs and Schindler's List a bunch of Oscars. It's not about the violence.

  • Lala | March 1, 2014 11:24 AM

    I don't understand why people think it's brutal! It really wasn't! My mother, who cries in half the films she watches barely frowned while watching "12 Years a Slave". Journalists just say it's 'brutal' so the audience don't think it's so typical for the Academy to reward it. Trust me, if no one called the film 'brutal', it would just be way too obvious of a choice for Best Picture.

  • Janet | February 28, 2014 7:38 PM

    Excellent point, Matt. Thank you and Eric for sharing. It's a great film. Last year truly had the best crop of quality storytelling with amazing performances. Bravo to Steve McQueen & Co.
    As for Winston's comments below, the reality of injustice in this film -- and events occurring in this milennium should bring outrage to EVERY human being.

  • Winston | February 28, 2014 2:45 PMReply

    Movie sucked and it does nothing for America's current race relations except exacerbate the problems. Re: this is Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman style race-baiting which only serves to alienate both sides against eachother. I used to think McQueen was an artist, now I think he's just a hack.

  • BluTopaz | March 3, 2014 11:59 AM

    "and it does nothing for America's current race relations except exacerbate the problems."

    In other words, it shows how barbaric Whites were during slavery and that makes you uncomfortable.

    And who said it's supposed to do anything to soothe race relations? Go finish watching your NASCAR race.

  • ras | March 1, 2014 12:22 AM

    though i am not a fan of the film 12 years, i think it unfair to expect a film to do anything for race relations. in fact, i think you'd be hard-pressed to name any film in the american canon that has ever done anything to help race relations.

  • Simone | February 28, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    "If it doesn't win, the Academy has collectively — if not consciously — rejected an unparalleled opportunity to recognize the strongest achievement in motion pictures released last year. Should "12 Years a Slave" lose, the outcome will amount to a statement of carelessness and naiveté on the part of the only voting body with the strength in numbers to correct clichés associated with American movies' downward-spiraling dumbness. Fortunately, even if we don't see "12 Years a Slave" onstage this Sunday, when the hype dies down, we'll still have "12 Years a Slave."

    Amen! Amen! I'll even feel sorry for AMPAS if they mess up this opportunity.