Movie Irv and I make our first Oscar prognosticating video around this time, so we’ll soon get to see if he agrees with me in making the following predictions, which are not quite as out-of-the-box as my (spot-on) declaration this time last year that Argo would take home the Academy Award:
12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Not only that, but Steve McQueen (yes, that’s his name) makes history by becoming the first black filmmaker to—at last—take the statue for Best Director. Feel free to return to this post next year and make fun of me if I turn out to be wrong on either count…but I won’t be.
The film tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor; pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for)—the film is based on his 1853 book—a free black man living in upstate New York and employed as a musician. Eager to keep busy after his wife and children travel to another town for work she has obtained, Northup accepts a job offer to play the violin for a traveling circus headed to Washington, D.C. There, he is kidnapped and sold into slavery—dispatched to Louisiana to work on plantations.
Stripped of his identity and given the name “Platt” by his captors, Northup is forced to make very hard choices in the pursuit of his survival, which result in a moral awakening as he evolves from being an “outsider looking in” to fully a member of slave society. Worst are the pains he faces at the side of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young woman maintaining the favor of her sadistic master (Michael Fassbender) by picking 500 pounds of cotton daily and submitting to his licentious urges.
Director McQueen’s film has alternately been labeled “the best film about slavery ever made” and a picture too downbeat and brutal to endure. Both appraisals fail 12 Years a Slave by succumbing to unhelpful hyperbole. Like the Holocaust, slavery is simply too broad a topic to have one film legitimately eclipse all others; and while the movie contains scene after scene vividly dramatizing the violence and inhumanity of human bondage, the emotion this film will chiefly evoke in sensitive audiences is compassion.
McQueen, along with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker (both regular collaborators), make some truly bold choices with painterly framing, long takes, and gorgeously realized Louisiana locations; Hans Zimmer’s score is at turns harsh, sad, and graceful; the acting ensemble here is peerless, with Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o’s performances supported by equally stellar turns from Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, and Alfre Woodard; Brad Pitt (who also co-produced) appears almost as a grace note in a small, but crucial, role.
Screenwriter John Ridley, who has been made highly visible on the talk circuit, delivers a script of unusual elegance that tweaks straightforward chronology without falling prey to artifice. Pay special attention to the carefully chosen final line of dialogue; it plays on many levels for both the characters and the audience, and there is something subtly devastating about it, even as 12 Years a Slave earns the empathy you bring to Solomon Northup’s tears of joy.