MANILA, Philippines – When 12 Years a Slave walked away with the Academy Award for Best Picture, it wasn’t at all surprising. What it was, however, was satisfying.
Despite being the popular pick among critics, 12 Years a Slave still had a chance of losing to more box-office friendly nominees like David O. Russell’s American Hustle or Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. And even if it had, it would’ve only perpetuated the imaginary mold of cinema that the Academy had fashioned for itself.
Slavery continues to be a sensitive topic in Hollywood. This isn’t simply because slavery is a difficult topic to tackle, but because the Academy has had a long history of turning a blind eye to films that tackled it head on, though there are a few exceptions. But then the problem here is doubled-edged.
During the ceremony itself, host Ellen DeGeneres took a candid jab at Oscar voters by joking that anything less than a win for 12 Years a Slave would be tantamount to racism. To add fuel to the fire, the L.A Times recently reported that two Oscar voters anonymously admitted not watching 12 Years a Slave despite having voted for it. Regardless of the film’s quality, there was a looming concern that voters were supporting the film out of obligation instead of appreciation.
But while Ellen DeGeneres’ punchline was made in good fun, her brand of half-hearted truth only unearthed the question on everyone’s mind. Did the film win because of how it portrayed slavery? Or did it win because it was about slavery?
If you were to judge 12 Years a Slave simply on the basis of its premise, the Steve McQueen-directed film would undoubtedly fall into the former. But after sitting through the length of the film, it’s easy to see how McQueen’s film transcends its Oscar-bait trappings.
12 Years a Slave is a historical drama based on the memoir of the same name. It follows the story of author and protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who, by unfortunate circumstances, is sold into slavery. Although the loss of his freedom is fundamental to the story, it is the loss of his family and his identity that is most brutal.
Make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult film to watch. But that difficulty isn’t felt out of a manipulation of filmmaking tricks or an exploitation of subject matter. It is instead, derived from a distilled truth – truth that, for a time, parts of one of the most developed countries in the world deemed it right that a man be called the property of another man.
The Facelessness of slavery
12 Years a Slave approaches its story with an almost clinical lack of sentimentality. Audience members becomes observers to Northup’s plight. But while the events are laid out plainly in front of its audience, director Steve McQueen is careful not to let the brutishness of the film’s violence spiral into a kind of pornography.
In a particularly gripping scene, Northup is hung from a tree and left to dangle with only the tips of his toes keeping him from suffocation. The camera is left at a distance, watching Northup struggle to keep his balance. But then the shot lingers, and we watch as the other slaves wander in the background. Their apathy is shocking, and the shot is agonizing. The seconds tick by in an excruciating eternity. But while shot is painful, it is also truthful. There is no melodramatic score accompanying Northup’s struggle for life. There is no fancy camerawork guiding our eyes. We are left in the moment, a distance from Northup, but hanging from that same tree. And when Northup is finally let down, his gasp for breath is also our own.
But despite our ability to empathize with Northup (particularly through Ejiofor’s masterful performance), his character seems surprisingly indistinct.
In fact, 12 Years a Slave, spends very little time on Northup’s character outside of a brief period of time with his family. We are given glimpses of his principles, and even more so of his abilities, but by the end of the film, he is as much a man of mystery as when the film first began.
But despite Northup’s supposed facelessness, his bizarre anonymity carries an intentional universality. His experience of slavery is not an isolated or special case (although his freedom from it may have been). From a prime example of civil liberties, Northup is stripped down to a model of their disintegration. And it is through his nebulous character that we understand that his plight is not simply his own, but belongs to all victims of bondage.
In contrast to Northup, it is the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) that becomes the real face of the film. She is history’s broken spirit, and humanity’s crushed heart. When she begs for Northup to take her life, it is because she knows that the only freedom she will ever know is that of a watery grave.
The reality of African slavery continues to be a hard pill to swallow, not only for Americans, but for international audiences. This isn’t simply because our Western-centric world is hard pressed to see the white man as anything other than heroic, but because we reject the notion that humanity (regardless of race or culture) is capable of such blatant callousness.
In truth, 12 Years a Slave is devoid of any nourishing positivity. This isn’t a film about the human spirit, it is a film about what is left when that has been taken away.
A real Oscar-winner
Just last year, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Both films dealt with slavery, but by depicting slaves as supporting instead of main characters, they successfully managed to keep the topic at arm’s length.
In 12 Years a Slave, the experience is different. By putting us in the shoes of Northup, we are given a ground level view of a time that America does its best to forget, or at least is careful to disguise under the blanket of orchestral scores and cinematic heroism.
12 Years a Slave will undoubtedly have its detractors. In spite of its matter-of-fact depiction of slavery, the film is still guided by the same dramatic conventions as most Hollywood offerings. There is still a large dose of white-washing, particularly in the case of plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and carpenter Bass (Brad Pitt).
12 Years a Slave may not be the best film of the year, but one can’t dismiss how its victory at the Oscars is a significant one. As cinema continues to strive to achieve truth, 12 Years a Slave is at least a step in that direction. It is the kind of film that reminds audiences that not all movies are meant to entertain. Some are meant to challenge and even unsettle the spirit. And If the Academy continues to think itself a platform for recognizing such achievements, it can at least hold on to that notion for one more year. – Rappler.com
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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