Oscar Watch: 12 Years a Slave

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

 The term “instant classic,” is one that should almost never be used in the world of film. After all, doesn’t the very definition of “classic” imply that something must stand the test of time? Nonetheless, it’s fun to forecast the future and see whether any particular Oscar-winning meet that standard. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is probably a classic. Chicago? Not so much.

If one movie will be remembered as a great film in 20 years from this year’s race, my vote goes to 12 Years a Slave (along with documentary The Act of Killing, but that’s for another post). It is difficult to imagine a film about American slavery that feels less like a history lesson, but more like actual lived experience. I’m not sure how director Steve McQueen and company did it, but the results are to be celebrated.


12 Years a Slave will very likely take home Oscar’s top prize.

There’s been a strange backlash against the film in the movie going community; people say it’s flawed and overrated. No movie is perfect, but I can’t find any glaring flaws in the movie the way some have. It has some boring stretches and needed better editing? So did Citizen Kane.

People also say that 12 Years is the kind of movie that should win Best Picture, which is somehow different from the movie that deserves it. I think the argument is that the film’s subject matter trumps any arguments about its quality. As an Academy voter told Entertainment Weekly, “It was by far not my favorite picture, but choosing 12 Years validates the idea that the film should exist.” Wait…what?

The movie should win Best Picture not because it’s a movie about slavery, but because it is the movie about slavery. It’s also the best movie of the year. Why does it need to be anything else?

12 Years seems to be in a dead heat with Gravity, but, as I’ve said before, the populist choice always loses to the prestige picture. I think 12 Years will squeak by with the night’s big prize.

Of course, the film is nominated for 8 other Oscars, and should take home several of them. Not the least is Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning supporting performance as tortured slave Patsy.She gave a performance every bit as brutally physically and emotionally wrenching as Sandra Bullock did in Gravity; under the banner of “supporting,” she really carried a good chunk of the movie.

I’ve said so much about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead performance as Solomon Northrup, all I can really add is that he should win, but won’t. That Oscar has Matthew McConaughey’s name on it.

Same goes for Michael Fassbender’s searing supporting performance as the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps. He’s richly deserving, but will lose to Jared Leto, which some say is because of the fact that Leto played a transgender woman, rather than the performance itself. It’s a stacked category, and I loved Leto, but Fassbender’s is my favorite performance of the bunch.

12 Years will likely lose the directing and editing prizes to Gravity, making it one of those strange years when the Best Picture winner does not actually win that many awards. The costume and production design are good but not good enough.

The only seeming certainty in 12 Years’ crystal ball is the award for adapted screenplay. As rottentomatoes points out, Best Picture winners also win the Best Screenplay award. Of course, given that Gravity’s screenplay isn’t even nominated, even that is not a sure thing this year. Nonetheless, John Ridley’s script tells a harrowing life story without preaching or speechifying, and is in every way a triumphant adaptation of Northup’s own letters.

Despite its fate on Oscar Sunday, I truly believe 12 Years will stand the test of time as a masterpiece. Then again, I think the same thing about Lincoln, and that only won two awards despite 12 nominations during the 2013 show.