It is the decade of the eighteen-forties and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn't called that anymore, those around him call him Platt. This is because he is now a slave on a plantation in Georgia, and there's not a day that goes by that he does not think of his life before his ordeal when he was a musician working in the Northern States with a wife and two children. He was happy then, content with his lot, but then the tragedy occurred as he was persuaded by two men who told him they ran a circus that he was just right for their show. One meal later and Northup was waking up in a cell in chains: he had been duped and sold into slavery, a situation where it matters not what you were before if you are black in the Southern states...
Director Steve McQueen became the first person in history to win both the Turner Prize for art (for a copy of an old Buster Keaton gag with the comedy removed) and the Oscar for Best Picture, for 12 Years a Slave, though the Best Director gong eluded him, going to the helmer of another British/American co-production, Gravity. Not to worry, it was a strong year for the Academy Awards and the Best Picture was the biggest prize of the night, indicating that McQueen had truly arrived in the moviemaking business, not that his previous two features had been ignored, yet now it was the establishment taking note of him, which can be a powerful justification and endorsement, as if all those famous faces popping up in extended cameos (producer Brad Pitt playing the sole reasonable white guy in the South, for instance) was not enough already.
Well, it was until the reveal that many of the Academy had not watched 12 Years a Slave and had voted for it because it sounded important, not because it was to their taste, which took the wind out of the production's sails to a degree. Also unfortunate was the public falling out between McQueen and his writer John Ridley; reports differed as to how much of the adaptation of Northup's nineteenth century memoir had been penned by either man, but it was clear Ridley didn't think he was getting enough credit and relations were frosty between them. Did this completely overshadow the actual film, however? Not entirely, as the achievement of getting a mainstream audience to watch what amounted to an art film about the touchy subject of slavery was not to be sneezed at.
However, an art film was what it was, meaning McQueen's blandly observant style, which encouraged the viewer to draw their own conclusions no matter how contentious the incidents being observed, turned off a lot of audiences, though to his credit it was not an approach which he stuck to for the entirety of the story, with his sympathy for an artist forbidden to express himself on pain of violence or even death deeply felt. Previous to this the work with the biggest impact on how America regarded the shameful past of slavery had been the seventies television miniseries Roots, which may have not been without controversy (original author Alex Hailey invented a lot of the supposedly true account of his ancestors, though the gist and intent were laudable) but did have the nation, even the world, discussing a subject that countless Westerns never had the courage to address.
However, there was always the potential for the lurid, and so it was with the rabble-rousing Italian shockumentary Goodbye Uncle Tom which told African Americans the only way to make up for the past injustices was bloody revolution, and Mandingo, which became a laughing stock for its attempts to bring home the horror of the situation and dismissed. Steven Spielberg's far more tasteful Amistad had nothing like the impact that Quentin Tarantino's almost comic strip Django Unchained had (like this drawing from cult seventies Western Skin Game), seeing slavery debated once again, and McQueen's efforts fell somewhere between, staying close to the poetry of his imagery when you might have wanted him to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. That was until the scene where the crazed plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the slave he is sexually obsessed with and the full revulsion of what mankind has been reduced to finally dominates. Ejiofor remained his typically excellent self, but that disgust, that anger, should have been key earlier. Music by Hans Zimmer.
To be honest I am a little surprised people were shocked so many Academy voters did not see this. Many of the older voters rarely get to the cinema while the rest are so busy handling their own movies they never get to see any others. As history has shown, especially since the Eighties, a lot of people base their votes on prestige and hearsay banking if a film sounds worthy and important than it is probably a good tent-pole for the industry. Prestige is more important than solid craftsmanship, hence more true life stories and fewer genre movies. Hence Gandhi rather than ET, The King's Speech rather than Inception. Now and again though the Academy gets something right.
23 May 2014
More by accident than design, though. It's irritating that an Oscar winner is not necessarily a mark of quality anymore, as equally while it may not mean the films in question are bad it might not mean they're any good either. They do send out screeners, don't they? Although reportedly the case with this was the brutal subject matter meant it wasn't something many voters cared to even give a try.