Does America need ‘12 Years a Slave’ to win a best picture Oscar?

Some say a win would legitimize discussion of race in US; others warn against relying on Hollywood for such statements

Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is a serious contender for film’s top prize.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2006, “Brokeback Mountain” was the presumed favorite to win the coveted Academy Award for best picture. The film, telling the story of a forbidden love affair between two rugged cowboys forced to keep their attraction secret, was lauded for its unflinching look at the men’s lives and for scenes that portrayed such intimacy in a fairly unprecedented way for mainstream film.

But in the days leading up to the Oscars, a Los Angeles Times piece speculated as to whether “secret homophobia” was fueling an upset that would keep the top prize out of the hands of the film’s producers. In the end, “Crash,” an ensemble drama that bluntly presented issues of race and inequality, beat “Brokeback” for best picture, and some of the predicted accusations of homophobia rolled out in response.

Now and then, a well-made film comes along that by its very subject matter takes on a significance that reaches beyond the norm. Certain films bring with them a sense of social or political responsibility, and the Academy Award can come to represent the legitimacy of the subject matter rather than the filmmaking. This year, “12 Years a Slave” is that film, and while some believe it must win to legitimize the conversation around slavery it evokes, others warn against placing too much emphasis on any prize associated with the profit-driven entertainment industry.

Critics were virtually unanimous in their praise of director Steve McQueen’s film, based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film has a 96 percent “fresh” rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Not only is it admired for the filmmaking, but critics also called it “essential” and “necessary,” with one saying, “Every shot … conveys some penetrating truth about America’s original sin.”

All of this raises a question: Given the universal praise — not to mention the box-office success (the film made nearly $50 million in the U.S. and another $79 million abroad) — what would a best picture win or loss mean to the film or the issue of how Americans are dealing with slavery?

‘Lay this bear to rest’

Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association — which gave “12 Years a Slave” its top prize — said he thinks the film “almost has to win best picture” to extend the opportunity to confront the reality of slavery’s impact on American history.

“Who would have ever thought that Hollywood would have to take a real leadership role and help really lay this bear to rest?” Robertson said, suggesting that a more direct universal acknowledgment and understanding about slavery would help smooth racial tensions in the U.S. “I’ll be 50 this year, and we’ve been having the same conversation (about race) for the last 50 years; and it’s, like, OK, maybe my son will see the end of it. (Slavery) happened, so let’s deal with it and let’s move forward.”

Robertson said a best picture win could only help move the race conversation forward.

“There were some people who thought President Obama being elected would lead to a greater conversation on race relations, on this country’s racial past, and that really hasn’t come to fruition,” he said. “Hopefully the heightened attention it will receive should (‘12 Years a Slave’) win should bring some resolve in people — it’ll be kind of a legitimizer and sort of take the taint away from discussing it. If it doesn’t win I would be very disappointed; it would be an opportunity lost for the industry to be able to lead a very important conversation.”

Eric Foner, a professor and author of U.S. history at Columbia University, has publicly applauded the film in The New York Times and McQueen’s work in getting viewers “into the real world of slavery,” which, he added, is “not easy to do.” But Foner said he has little interest in whether the film wins a trophy from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“(Oscars) have much more to do with Hollywood profit-making than any large cultural trends,” Foner told Al Jazeera in an email. “I’m glad ‘12 Years a Slave’ is out there; whether it wins or loses doesn’t mean very much.”

Human stories matter

Tom Nunan, an executive producer of “Crash” who is now a visiting professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said best picture is a huge, life-changing prize for those who win it, but warned against wrapping too much social or political significance onto winners and losers.

“It's just naive if somebody thinks that Hollywood is making a statement by picking or not picking a movie to be its best picture representative,” Nunan said. “You can't draw a cultural or political conclusion based on the very unpredictable manner by which a film gets picked to be best picture.”

Nunan said the Academy Awards — despite their universal appeal to movie fans — are Hollywood’s way of endorsing the kind of filmmaking and storytelling it wants to see more, rather than a platform for social commentary.

“We don’t send messages to the world with our best picture picks. We send messages to our little factory here in L.A.,” he said. “Fair or unfair, the message is about: give us movies with a lot of great performances and you’re likely to get at least nominated for best picture. That’s what ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘12 Years’ — that’s what they all have in common is that they’re great ensembles with great acting in them.”

Nunan said the success of “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, and of “12 Years a Slave,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and other human dramas this year, sends a more meaningful message about audiences still being interested in such theatrical releases that are less about technical achievements.

“If an audience feels like they’re going for required reading, they typically don’t want to pay for that. They might watch it on cable or something at home, but they’re not going to go out to the movie and pay for that,” Nunan said, adding that such dramas are now mostly coming through TV or Netflix.

Films such as “12 Years a Slave” are a rarity these days, Nunan said, as studios move more toward spectacles to draw audiences.

“If ‘12 Years’ or if ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ won best picture, it would be a way of rewarding how difficult it is to get a movie like that made in this environment, where the studios aren’t making movies that are human dramas anymore. They're making ‘The Lego Movie’ — which is a great movie, but it’s not what adults tend to go out to the movies to see,” he said. “I think the academy and its members want to celebrate people who are striving to do those films that have some kind of import to the more mature human experience.”

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