Based on its pedigree and early reviews from the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, I’m eagerly anticipating 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated new film about a free black man (Chiweter Ejiofor) who endures horrendous treatment at the hands of a ruthless slave master (Michael Fassbender). In an article entitled “Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave“, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan writes, “A century from now, when they put together a montage about the history of movies? They’ll put the film we just saw in the first ten seconds of that montage.” If this movie really is the Schindler’s List of slavery, as others have suggested, all the better.
But I think it’s very foolish and unnecessary to anoint this movie as the guaranteed Oscar winner for Best Picture a full six months before the ceremony.
First and foremost, it’s entirely too early to make even the most premature of predictions about the upcoming Oscars. I’m willing to bet that a majority of this year’s Best Picture nominees haven’t even been released yet, let alone had enough time to gather the critical consensus and buzz momentum to sustain a full-on Oscar campaign and secure the coveted trophy. Recent history is littered with examples of movies that critics and pundits were too quick to elevate to frontrunner status before the conversation had a chance to assess their merits and placement in the Oscar narrative. Remember when Zero Dark Thirty was the guaranteed winner? The Social Network? When Brokeback Mountain couldn’t lose? The Aviator? Saving Private Ryan? It seems pointless to speculate this early in the game.
I understand that these conversations attract people to read articles and contribute to enthusiasm for movies in general, both positive developments for sure. But these aren’t the conversations we should be having. Quite frankly, who cares if 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture or not? I’d rather a conversation about this movie’s (apparently many) merits. How does this movie advance the conversation on race relations in the United States? What does it accomplish differently from last year’s Django Unchained? How does McQueen’s command of his craft elevate this movie beyond preachiness or shock value? To be fair, many critics have delved into these issues throughout their festival reaction pieces, but the overwhelming tone of the discussion so far seems centered around the Academy Awards.
Quite honestly, I almost hope 12 Years a Slave doesn’t win Best Picture. After all, the past few years have shown that the Academy rarely picks the most impressive, innovative movie for the title. Zero Dark Thirty engaged in far more interesting ideas than the excellent thriller Argo, but the latter beat the former because of its mass appeal. Same story with The King’s Speech and The Social Network. If 12 Years a Slave follows the trend of previous Best Picture winners, it won’t end up being the best movie of the year, but merely the easiest and least controversial consensus choice.
Because of its subject matter and the early reactions, I don’t expect that scenario to play out. But then I also don’t know if this movie will break the Oscars’ recent conservative trend. And I don’t care! If the movie’s as incredible as everyone says it is, we’ll have plenty to talk about when it opens on October 18th, all Oscars aside.