As we come closer to the Academy Awards on March 2nd, we’ll be posting short profiles of each Best Picture nominee, attempting, in our own ways, to not only sum up what the movie is about, but why we believe it scored one of the nine coveted nominations, and why it could possibly take home the big prize come Oscar night. Enjoy!
12 Years a Slave is your Best Picture of 2013. The race is certainly heating up, and Gravity, and for some reason American Hustle, have very strong chances of winning the Oscar this Sunday. But there is a power, a beauty, and, yes, an importance to 12 Years a Slave. Whether you agree or not, I truly believe there is a cultural significance to this film winning Best Picture, but I don’t want to use this column to discuss that (many other writers have already expressed this point far more eloquently than I ever could). Because yes, 12 Years a Slave is very much a movie that makes a statement. But it’s also, on its own merits, a great work of cinema.
Director Steve McQueen is a self-identified artist. He has frequently named Andy Warhol as an influence on his work, and his early career consisted of of using film to create bold artistic statements, with his films often screened on art gallery walls. This early history bleeds through each frame of Slave, each shot handled meticulously, images practically begging to break out of the screen, filled with pain and anguish. The above image of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) staring directly at the viewer, as if asking for help, bores into your soul and refuses to leave. There are many images like this in the movie; Solomon barely balancing on his toes with a noose around his neck waiting for his master to cut him free. Patsey’s back, ripped to shreds from whipping. Solomon walking in on two slaves about to be lynched, and the fear rising up in his soul as to how to proceed. The list goes on. This film crawls under your skin and refuses to leave.
While it is not an easy film to get through, what keeps us enthralled is the richness of the characters up on the screen, and Solomon’s relationships with his fellow slaves, especially Patsey, brought to life on the screen by Lupita Nyong’o. She is constantly used and abused by her master (Michael Fassbender in a chilling role), and Solomon, nor anyone, can do anything about it. It’s that constant stake of inaction that leaves us with our mouths agape, the choices we so wish we could see these characters make, with the harsh understanding that to do so could mean the end of their lives. And every dash of hope Solomon receives; finding a man to send his letter home, being granted the chance to play his violin, it’s all taken away from him, his hope continually crushed into the mud like his toes in the hanging scene which will never leave my mind.
There is much torment and horror to focus on when discussing this movie. But what brings the film to transcendence is the chance for hope and the opportunity to move forward. Through all 12 years of hardship, Solomon still holds on to some shred of hope to escape. He still remembers his name, even when it is taken away from him, and the name of his wife and children. He still holds on to these memories, refusing to let go of his identity. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s masterful heartbreaking performance accents this point perfectly, with those eyes, those eyes bloodshot and almost driven to the breaking point of a man. But he is still a man holding onto something. They may call him “Platt” for those 12 years, but he is a man who for those years knows he is Solomon Northup.
12 Years a Slave is your Best Picture of 2013. No matter what that envelope says.