THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘12 Years a Slave’ (2013)

In 2014, the 86th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2013, the awards were held on March 2. For the second time, the ceremony was hosted by comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. The ceremony was once again delayed from its usual February date to avoid conflicting with the Winter Olympic Games.

The ceremony received the highest viewership since the 72nd ceremony in 2000, with 43.74 million tuning in. They were treated to one of the greatest ceremonies in recent times, thanks to Ellen’s sublime hosting performance. In one of the most memorable Oscars moments ever, Ellen gathered several attendees including Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Lupita Nyong’o to take a selfie together. The resulting tweet of the photo temporarily crashed Twitter, and went on to become the most retweeted tweet in history, with over 3.4 million retweets.

The ceremony also featured another memorable moment, but this one for all the wrong reasons. While introducing Idina Menzel’s performance of “Let It Go” from Frozen, John Travolta accidentally mispronounced Menzel’s name, instead introducing her as “the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem.” The moment became an iconic example of an awkward awards show flub, with #AdeleDazeem immediately trending on Twitter. Travolta later apologised for the mixup. At next year’s Oscars, the pair appeared onstage together, where Menzel got her playful revenge by introducing Travolta as “my very dear friend – Glom Gazingo.”

With her win for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett became the sixth actress to win both female acting categories and the sixth performer to win for a performance from a Woody Allen-directed film. With Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s respective wins for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Dallas Buyers Club became the fifth film to win both male acting awards.

With her win for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o became the 16th performer to win an Academy Award for their debut film performance and the ninth Best Supporting Actress winner to achieve this feat. Nyong’o was also the first black African-born performer to win an Academy Award and the sixth black actress to win this category.

With his win for Best Director for Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón became the first person of Mexican descent to win this category. With his nomination for Best Director for 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen became only the third black person to be nominated in this category. With his win for Best Original Song for “Let It Go” from Frozen, Robert Lopez became the youngest individual to achieve EGOT i.e. winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Lopez is only the 12th individual in history to earn these four honours.

American Hustle became director David O. Russell’s second-consecutive film to earn nominations in all four acting categories and the 15th film in Oscars history to achieve this feat. The film was nominated for ten awards but sadly went home empty-handed, making it only the third film in history to lose all ten of its nominations.

Leading the way this year with 10 nominations each were Russell’s crime-caper American Hustle and Cuarón sci-fi spectacle Gravity. Despite Gravity taking home an impressive seven Academy Awards, it failed to win the big one, and the night ultimately belonged to McQueen’s unflinching period drama 12 Years a Slave. The film took home three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o and Best Adapted Screenplay. 12 Years a Slave marked the first Best Picture winner from both a black director and written by an African-American writer.

The nominees:
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

The winner:
12 Years a Slave

Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is the confronting and authentic account of one man’s incredible fight for freedom. In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon’s life forever.

Why did it win?
After three years of picking the safe, light, crowd-pleasing contender, the Academy went back to awarding Best Picture to the film with the most importance. After years of being labelled an exclusively white affair (bar a few notable exceptions), the Oscars had the chance to make history. At the start of the ceremony, Ellen even joked “Anything can happen tonight. So many possibilities. Possibility number 1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number 2: you’re all racists.” Their choice would be a rather bleak and unsettling film but one which broke new ground at the Oscars and managed to shatter a few records, along the way.

It’s easy to denigrate the Best Picture victory of 12 Years a Slave by saying it only won because it was “the black film.” There’s a degree of that, but it’s not the entire story. Yes, the film stood as a chance to finally award “the black film” from the black director with a black writer with the honour of Best Picture – something which had never happened in 85 years of the Academy Awards. That fact undoubtedly played some part in its victory. Deny it all you will, but it had some role in its Oscar narrative. It served as a chance for the Academy to pat themselves on the back, potentially receive a lot of adulation and admiration from the industry, and end the cries of racism amongst its ranks. It offered a Best Picture vote which Academy members could ultimately feel good about. That was clear in its ballsy “For Your Consideration” advertising campaign.

In February 2014, billboards and other advertising material for 12 Years a Slave began to appear with just two words on them – “It’s time.” While it wasn’t explicitly clear what this meant, it was fairly obvious to read between the lines on what angle Fox Searchlight was essentially pushing with this campaign. “It’s time” for a film about the black experience and the shameful history of slavery to win Best Picture. “It’s time” for a film with a predominantly black cast, written by a black screenwriter, and crafted by a black director to take home the film industry’s highest honour. And “it’s time” you get on board this freight train of a frontrunner so you can be a part of history. It still stands as one of the boldest pieces of Oscar campaigning in recent times (Melissa Leo’s bizarre personal “Consider…” campaign in 2011 probably takes the cake), and it worked an absolute treat.

12 Years a Slave was able to navigate another confusing and complicated precursor season where it ultimately failed to sweep. The film started the season with a bang, taking Best Picture and Director with the New York Film Critics, but from here, things went pear-shaped very quickly. The Los Angeles Film Critics had a tie for Best Picture, awarding both Her and Gravity. The National Board of Review also went with Her as their choice. And the National Society of Film Critics went their own way, choosing Inside Llewyn Davis instead.

The Golden Globes confused the race even more by splitting their four major awards to four different films. Best Director went to Gravity, Best Screenplay went to Her, Best Motion Picture – Comedy went to American Hustle, and Best Motion Picture – Drama went to 12 Years a Slave. Soon it became evident we could be heading for a split at the Oscars in Picture and Director for the second year in-a-row. But just which film would take Best Picture was still a complete mystery. Frustratingly, the guilds wouldn’t make the race any clearer.

The DGA naturally went to Cuarón, the SAG Ensemble somewhat surprisingly went to American Hustle, and the PGA had their first ever tie, awarding both Gravity and 12 Year a Slave. The rules of precursor wins were suddenly becoming completely irrelevant. Unlike American Hustle and 12 Years a SlaveGravity failed to receive the all-important SAG Ensemble nomination, hurting its Best Picture chances. But it was a film with predominantly one cast member, so calling it an ensemble piece was clearly too much of a stretch. It was a three-horse race, and it fell to BAFTA to make sense of it all.

The Brits went with 12 Years a Slave for Best Film, but Cuarón for Director, and it seemed like this could be heading the same way at the Oscars. But with an impressive and field-leading ten nominations, American Hustle was still very much in the running. Its lead cast were four of the biggest names in the industry. Its director was one of the most exciting talents in the game. And the film was so damn likeable and entertaining, feeling very reminiscent of Argo the year before. But only one film had that key importance factor, and it received more critical acclaim than anything else this year.

12 Years a Slave received widespread acclaim from critics, with many deeming it the best film of the year. The New York Post called it a “brutally powerful and emotionally devastating film,” Rolling Stone hailed the film as “a blistering, brilliant, straight-up classic,” and the New York Daily News heralded the film as a “harrowing, unforgettable drama that doesn’t look away from the reality of slavery and, in so doing, helps us all fully, truly confront it.” Adding to its critical success, 12 Years a Slave was also a surprise commercial hit too, taking in over $187 million worldwide on a budget of just $17 million. Despite its harsh narrative, audiences were clearly keen to see what all the buzz was about.

Leading into Oscar night, it was still relatively up in the air which way the Academy would go. But that “It’s time” movement proved to be the masterstroke it needed to snatch Best Picture. So, yes, 12 Years a Slave partly won Best Picture because it was a bold and history-making choice for the Academy, but the real truth behind its victory was simply the fact it was a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema. Confronting, brutal, and uncomfortable, 12 Years a Slave was a film which left an indelible mark on its viewer. It was a daring film, in many ways, and the Academy simply had no other choice for Best Picture this year.

Did it deserve to win?
Let’s be honest – 12 Years a Slave is not a film you want to rush out and see again. It remains one of the most harrowing and devastating pieces of cinema I’ve ever experienced. I can still vividly remember the first I saw it. By its conclusion, I was so emotionally exhausted, I actually considered going to see Frozen, just to cheer me up. With its brutal and unflinching depiction of the shameful treatment of black slaves in pre-abolition America, 12 Years a Slave is an almost unbearable experience. It’s a film which truly challenges its audience. You want to look away (especially in those whipping scenes), but you know you cannot. It demands your attention and demands you bear witness to the unspeakable pain and torment these tragic souls were put through.

Much like Schindler’s List portrayed a disgraceful era in Germany’s past, 12 Years a Slave captures the American tragedy that was slavery and the deplorable treatment of African-Americans. It’s an uncompromising look at a time many Americans would rather forget ever happened. It was perhaps their darkest hour in an otherwise flourishing history. For a country who broke away from the chains of the monarchy to then enslave members of their own nation by virtue of the colour of their skin has always been a truly reprehensible moment in modern history. But 12 Years a Slave takes it a notch further, with its narrative of a free man illegally enslaved against his will.

It’s uncomfortable to watch a man like Solomon Northup become a slave. This man had a life and a family before he was kidnapped and illegally sold. But black men had no voice in 1841, and Northup is forced to remain silent and accept his devastating circumstances. It’s a horrendous tale, made all the more horrific by its true-life basis. This actually happened, and the emotional power that brings is truly immense. Ejiofor’s performance of Northup only elevates the film even further. His deeply-expressive face portrays such a wide variety of emotions, perfectly capturing his confusion at his enslavement, the pain his new surroundings bring, the repressed anger he feels, and a stoic determination to survive. It’s a performance for the ages. Had it not been for Matthew McConaughey’s career revival, Ejiofor would have an Oscar, right now.

But the true stand-out is Lupita Nyongó, who, in only her debut performance, is a genuine revelation. As fellow slave Patsey, Nyong’o instils her character with so much grace and humility, even in the face of unspeakable torment and anguish. Your heart breaks for Patsey, and Nyong’o’s performance is one of the greatest you will ever see. It’s little wonder she took home that Oscar. There was perhaps no more deserving winner this year than Nyong’o. On the flip-side of this performance is Fassbender, as the despicable and unhinged slave master Epps. As a man justifying his despicable actions with the word of God, Epps is pure malevolence, and Fassbender gives a wildly impressive performance, even if it’s with a character you will find truly deplorable.

In his depiction of this era, Steve McQueen is unrelenting with his authentic and genuine vision of the slave experience. Many scenes become almost unwatchable, as McQueen deftly refuses to sugar-coat or desensitise the unspeakable acts committed against these men and women. This is as close as it gets to a realistic portrayal of this era, and McQueen has no plans to make it more palatable for his audience. But even in such misery, McQueen finds the beauty, and some of his shots are so spectacular, you almost forget for a moment the misery of this narrative. The period production is first-class, with sublime set and costume design, and a beautiful score from Hans Zimmer to bring it all together.

Clearly, there was more to 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture than it just being the black film option. It is a damn masterpiece of a film, even if it is perhaps one you never want to see again. But did the film actually deserve to win Best Picture? Well, from where I stand, there were certainly better films in 2013. Gravity was a visceral and magical adventure like few films in history. With seven Oscar wins, it’s almost ridiculous it didn’t also take Best Picture. There was so much to love about American Hustle. It’s a film I can watch again and again, yet never tire of. But I understand it was probably too light to win, especially after years of light Best Picture choices. And then there’s Her and The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which completely blew me away, for very different reasons. It’s no wonder it was a confusing precursor season. This was a remarkable year for film, and any of these would have made a worthy Best Picture winner.

But, if we’re going for the film with the biggest impact and the greatest importance, you really can’t go past 12 Years a Slave. It’s not a film you don’t just watch, but one you experience to your very bones. You feel this movie, and it will hurt like hell. And you continue to hurt, long after the credits have finished rolling. It’s uncompromising and uncomfortable, but it needed to be. This story demanded to be told but it was essential it be crafted in a way which pulled no punches. While it’s great a “black film” was finally able to capture Best Picture, the true achievement to cheer for was the fact that “black film” just so happened to be one of the finest films of all time, and a worthy Best Picture winner.