Oscar History

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Yes, No, Maybe So: "12 Years a Slave"

One of our 'Most Awaited Titles of 2013' has long been 12 Years A Slave and very little of that anticipatory impatience is due to its arguable Oscar Baitiness (but yes, I've predicted it for several things back when the April Fools Predix arrived). No, ninety percent of the excitement comes by way of its director (Steve McQueen) who has yet to make a movie that's anything less than unmissable. True, he's only made two features and one of them has its very vocal detractors but if you missed Hunger or Shame it's your loss. They're two of the most striking features of the 21st century 

For his third feature he's reunited with his muse Michael Fassbender but this time the focus is on another actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor who has long been on the bubble to major stardom. 

Will this potentially potent period drama do the trick? Our Yes, No, Maybe So breakdown follows...



  • Shame and Hunger. Hey the names bear repeating
  • It'll be interesting to see a challenging black director take on the topic of slavery for a change. Almost every famous example is from a mainstream white director
  • I love that creepy odd music that kicks in when Solomon is kidnapped. Anyone know what that's from (assuming it's not the new original score)?
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor proved as early as Serenity that he could be just mesmerizing onscreen. Unfortunately he's often been stuck on the sidelines since and the sidelines is not the right place for someone with that much star wattage. Could this be his Oscar role?

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor proved as early as Serenity that he could be just mesmerizing onscreen. Unfortunately he's often been stuck on the sidelines since and the sidelines is not the right place for someone with that much star wattage. Could this be his Oscar role?
  • At the very least it's Michael Fassbender's Oscar Nom role since Oscar loves Evil Personified in the Supporting Actor category
  • Brad Pitt (If you don't know he''s always a plus for me by now...)
  • The trailer has a few beautiful shots that suggest that McQueen's visual dynamism will transfer well into period drama
  • Any film that gives Alfre Woodard something to do is beyond welcome in 2013
  • I'm largely suspicous of "triumph of the human spirit" type of emotional manipulation but I have to say that the "I don't want to survive. I want to live" really got to me. And that's just in a commercial!


Will Steve McQueen's visual gifts be amply evident?



  • I don't want this to be misread because both have given fine performances in the past but the Pauls, Dano and Giamatti strike me as risky casting for Evil Racist Slave-Masters #1 and #2 since both like to chew scenery loudly, with their mouths wide open and with no care at all for table manners or nuance... which might be a strong temptation here. Which brings me to the next thing...




  • McQueen, for all of his prodigious gifts, is not necessarily a subtle director. And those who turned on Shame did so largely because they felt it was just too obvious, heavy-handed, operatically didactic. Slavery is a topic that is easy to dramatize in all three of those ways so it doesn't need any help in getting there. This could go wrong.
  • In the end I'm a total "Yes" but is this really as typically maintream Oscar baity as the trailer appears to be? If so, McQueen might well have made his first mainstream movie that doesn't feel auteurial.


Here is the trailer for your Oscar-prognosticating edification...

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Reader Comments (49)

The music is from Danny Elfman's score for The Wolfman. I remember it was used super effectively in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trailer, as well.


July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Paul Giamatti has like 2 scenes. At least the version I saw.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

That creepy piece of music you heard is from "The Wolfman". Yes, "The Wolfman". I'm a yes!


July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin P.

And poor Sarah Paulson didn't get a name card :( Love her and am excited to see what she does here. But yes, Paul Dano frightens the hell out of me. He just seems miscast in absolutely everything he does.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

YES YES YES. No question.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I'm predicting 5 acting nominations...I don't exactly know who or how (actor, 2 sup actor, 2 sup actress??)...but if it delivers this looks like it is perfect for the current state of the academy. Prestige pic in the typical awards fare vein with the grit and determination of a truely visionary director.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I'm a YES just for Chiwetel Ejiofor. I've been following his career religiously since Deadly Voyage (which means I own some god-awful movies).

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterK

Lupito should be in consideration for supporting actress , she's great in it. Michael and Chiwetel should get nominations, but despite the trailer it is a McQueen film and I just can' t see AMPAS going for this. Unless there were changes from the version I saw.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Anonymous, five is a bold prediction. Only half a dozen films boast that many acting nods: Mrs. Miniver, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, FHTE, Tom Jones, GF2, Network. It's a slippery ring to grab.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

And the Pearl Harbor score to close it out.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I'm a yes because of Chiwetel Ejiofor & Brad Pitt but especially for Alfre Woodard. The woman is a goddess and one of the best actresses living, how does she not have an Oscar and Halle Berry does? Oh the evil fates!

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Big yes. Between this, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street I'm starting to get excited about the fall movie season.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

@Mareko Isn't that the Hans Zimmer soundtrack from "The Thin Red Line"?

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Bold. Yes, but I feel like its time for another dominant "actor's" movie. I know we had Silver Linings, but really I feel like that was Jennifer and her coattails (even though Bradley Cooper did give a perf I wasn't expecting). I'm just a sucker for movies abundant in tour de force performances. It's been 15 years since a BP has won more than one acting award (and that one is questionable...). So, whether its 12 Years or August or something else, I just long for that type of awards dominance!

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

picture it. oscars. 2014. jennifer lawrence messing up chiwetel ejiofor's name and being adorable doing it

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

Have you seen 'Dirty Pretty Things'? This is still my favorite performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he made this one three years before 'Serenity'

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

Looks beautiful. I am not liking Fassbender's accent but it's not an easy one for English actors. October means it either sinks or swims as far as awards.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen Sharp

Nathaniel, when will you be announcing the "I'm So Excited" giveaway winners?

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterQuestion for Nat

Very odd conjecturing...

As you say, McQueen is an artist of enormous gifts and it will be interesting to see his take on slavery from the vantage point of a british director more than as a black man.

Not sure what you are alluding to with your, "I'm largely suspicious of "triumph of the human spirit" type of emotional manipulation" comment.

You are aware that the text the film is based on is a very well known book, 12 Years a Slave, the very nature of the book is precisely about the triumph of the human spirit stuff.

Perhaps the director should have changed the trajectory of the story to suit our, "We're all going to hell in a handbasket" snarky modern attitudes.

On the other hand, I am thrilled that Chiwetel Ejiofor is being installed at the center of a film. Dirty Pretty Things is fantastic and his theater work is legendary but this should be just the thing.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterraul

...how does she not have an Oscar and Halle Berry does?

A non-white woman had to break into Best Actress somehow and Berry's the only one and I'd appreciate if you didn't drag her as an unworthy one considering the weak white talent they throw those statuettes at. Now if you said how does Octavia Spencer have an Oscar then fill in the blank I'd cosign your astonishment.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

What nobody's mentioned is that McQueen is British, Ejiofor is British, Fassbender is British... I'm surprised Spike Lee hasn't come out against it.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Ack! Fassbender is Irish. NOT the same thing.

Also, I agree with MrW about "Dirty Pretty Things". A fine Audrey Tautou performance, as well.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Also YES for Benedict Cumberbatch! ;)

Looks plenty Oscar-baity to me!

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCrazyCris

raul -- i only mean 'triumph of the human spirit' narratives aren't my cuppa. they're easy to approach cheaply with unearned emotional payoff. it has nothing to do with me wanting anything to be snarky. (also not my cuppa... i like sincerity)

i'm not sure what the source material has to do with that comment, though? But i did agree to read it as readers voted on it in the "which book should i read?" poll last month so i need to do that. it's sitting there on my kindle waiting. waiting.

anonymous -- really? intersting statistic. it needs an article :)

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Yes, and I hope Ejofor & Fassy score at the Oscar....I hoped also for a "welcome back" nominatio for Woodard....but someone who watched the film told me that, yes, she's excellent (and so it seems the other actresses are) but without a lot of screentime...

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I'm a yes because I take on Oscar bait like a school project, and I love the cast.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

My only real 'No' is the music for the trailer and although Zimmer's music from other movies is in it and it is a little distracting- along with just outright other music from other movies. The only one I enjoyed was the old American blues song at the end.

Dano always has that whiny tone to him so I cannot really connect it to him just playing 'evil' as in Looper he was a real victim and boy did he whine a lot. Needless to say his best role was when he was largely mute in Little Miss Sunshine. I do hope his screen-time is limited. Giamatti has a little more subtlety (like his brief scene in Cosmopolis being a recently great performance in a small dose) so I am not worried about him. I do find it fascinating that I caught Taran Killam as one of the men who betray Northup.

"What nobody's mentioned is that McQueen is British, Ejiofor is British, Fassbender is British... I'm surprised Spike Lee hasn't come out against it."
McQueen has done movies that take place in Northern Ireland, modern New York, and 19th centurry America. He is clearly not defined by his surroundings- he just takes a real interest in time and place.

Fassbender is German-Irish. Seriously, how could have missed that bit about him when he has spoken German in multiple movie roles and also his Irish brogue has always been his persona? Ejifor is a talented actor who is long overdue for such a role. Sure, it could easily work with a Nate Parker or Michael K. Williams in the same role but I would suspect McQueen cast on ability. Anyway, considering how many average white Australians/Brits have been cast as Americans as of late, no need to hate on McQueen.

Fassbender actually has done an interview talking about how the show Magnum P.I. is what taught him how to speak in an American brogue. That voice sounded much different from this one- and not just because it was more convincing. I am not necessarily sure his evil overseer is strictly of Southern origins- which I think would make for a more interesting angle for the movie- anyway.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Most of these actors have cameo roles , including Pitt, Woodard, Giamatti, Michael K. and Lil Q. I mean the trailer showed half of Woodard and Pitts performances. Adepero and Benedict roles are a bit larger. Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyongo have the largest roles. This trailer is kind of deceiving. The film is not an uplifting and inspirational film in the traditional sense. It is very brutal and uncomfortable to sit through. I agree with Melissa, I don't see AMPAS embracing this, no matter how deserving.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

A big yes, just to see the story come to life. But it is a brutal tale.

Also, not sure why there's so much recent chatter on nationalities, races, sexual preferences of actors (e.g., all the talk re Andrew Garfield playing a Portuguese priest; Matt Bomer playing Christian from "50 Shades"). If the actor is good enough in terms of talent, accent, etc., who cares where they're from, what color they are, or who they spend time with off set?

Michael Fassbender is very talented, and has a long, varied career ahead. I'll see anything he's in.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I'm certainly intrigued by this trailer, but I have not been as convinced by McQueen's previous work as some. I deeply suspect (and some of the comments have confirmed) that this is a much more difficult film than it is being presented as. But still, everyone in it looks very good, as does the cinematography, so I'm fairly certain it will end up on my watch list come October. Whether or not I'll actually get around to seeing it, however, is another matter.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I definitely echo the sentiments of a few posters above, the film won't be AMPAS cup of tea. Fox Searchlight is trying to find an audience for this film, hence the conventional trailer. The film is more a horror story than anything else. I know a lot of people complained at the screening I attended that it wasn't uplifting and that it was too brutal. There was a Q and A after the screening. So I'm pretty sure the trailer is based on that response.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

"I know a lot of people complained at the screening I attended that it wasn't uplifting and that it was too brutal. There was a Q and A after the screening. So I'm pretty sure the trailer is based on that response."

Well then I cannot wait for the large mass-response of how deceptive the movie's trailer was for people.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

"Well then I cannot wait for the large mass-response of how deceptive the movie's trailer was for people."

It's a film about slavery, not the Tarantino version, how else are they going to market it??? There aren't many films about this subject and there is a reason for that. Someone actually complained about how the ending was abrupt and not extremely positive. McQueen was still editing the film (There were about 3 or 4 screenings in February in different cities in the US),so I'm not sure what stayed and what didn't. There were reports of a 30 minute scene where a slave woman was cleaning a tub. That wasn't included in the version I saw.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

The trailer gives me a somewhat tenuous feeling about the whole effort, so I'm a hard maybe. If nothing else, I could definitely see Fassbender's earning his first Oscar nomination for the nature of the role alone.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I wasn't attacking the movie or its subject matter. I like hearing the feedback that it was brutal and not an inspiration story in the kitsch sense because that approach offends its subject matter. And people complaining about that are part of the problem if they do not think people are affected by the movie. That's where I was getting at. But movies that take on darker subjects are more often than not, marketed as something different (e.g. Every Zero Dark Thirty trailer from last year).

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I love the score music from The Wolfman as well... they used it in the most recent Great Expectations trailer as well. It really sets an uneasy tone.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I agree that it would be fun to see a film pick up multiple wins again, but it hasn't been 15 years. It happened in '04 with Mystic River. Everyone forgets MR :-)

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Travis: I try to every time I think about the 2003 race.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

CMG, settle down. I was criticising the film for being directed by a Brit and starring Brit (and I did correct the Fassbender/Irish thing), but merely pointing it out as an interesting fact because I know many like Spike Lee don't think the subject of slavery should be taken on by people who don't have a historical link to it.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I know many like Spike Lee don't think the subject of slavery should be taken on by people who don't have a historical link to it.

-- that's not why Spike Lee and others had issues with Django.lol. I mean did you see the trailer?

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

"... pointing it out as an interesting fact because I know many like Spike Lee don't think the subject of slavery should be taken on by people who don't have a historical link to it"

That was not his reasoning. He may have protested Norman Jewison from having a movie by Malcolm X 20-25 years ago but he is not opposed to white people dealing with black life. He is especially complimentary of David Simon's work on both Treme and The Wire, many have used the same actors over the years. He also is just as critical of black artists who really use their credibility for nothing but a low-brow entertainment like Tyler Perry. I think he would freak out at the suggestion of Tyler Perry doing a movie on the Antebellum South.

Lee and Tarantino have never been on the same page regarding black history or Tarantino's appropriation of black culture and the n-word. Django Unchained had nothing to do with skin color but in how Tarantino made such a terrible period into a revisionist spaghetti Western.

And 'historical link' to slavery is not just based on one race. If not, how do we explain stuff like the Paula Deen fiasco or why the Confederate flags cause so much commotion today? McQueen may be a Brit who has no ties to America but he is of Grenadian descent and I am sure the brutal imperial history of European empires-- that definitely were in the slave trade-- fascinates him too.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Yes. I too am happy that Chiwetel Ejiofor has a lead role in a high profile film. He is such a vital and interesting actor.

I'm happy too that they are opening it early enough that there will be time for discussion, and the worry about whether the story is brutal can settle down. I think that the discussion will create strong adherents, which will benefit Ejiofor and a nomination.

At this point, I don't see Fassbinder getting a nomination. It seems more likely that he will get his nomination for a leading performance as a good guy in a film yet to come.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I still find Chiwel's work in 'Dirty Pretty Things' to be the boom moment for me. Seconds into that movie I loved him and have ever since.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

This trailer actually had quite an impact on me. You pretty much touched on all of the thoughts I had while watching it, especially when it comes to Fassbender's role ("he's gonna be nominated" was went through my head while watching). There were some striking moments in the trailer that screamed "A STEVE MCQUEEN FILM" but there were also plenty of moments that seemed like a more traditional period piece, so that's intriguing as well.

There's no way I'm anything other than a yes, though. Ejiofor deserves great things and I hope this is the first of many more to come.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

There's this ridiculous notion, that this subject has been done to death. I can't even think of 5 films about slavery. However, I can name ten films about the Holocaust and WW2.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Melissa, only ten of each? In this decade alone! And let's not talk about biopics because there's ten of those every year.

I find it refreshing that filmmakers turned to slavery for a change. That and homosexuality in mainstream cinema needs to be talked about more. It is still a tabu that needs to be fought.

2005, Brokeback and Crash were just 8 years ago... Do you feel progress towards both of those themes? I don't.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJay


July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn D.

Sarah Paulson is such a YES for this movie. She did a great job in Game Change. Maybe this could be her opportunity to shine in a probably good motion picture.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndres F.

yes for the director and the casting but probably a huge MAYBE because of McQueen's lack of subtilety and it looks so academic and so Oscar "i want an Oscar "baity and for Django's tv release, i saw many movies about the slavery on the tv (and i'm few tired)

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfrench girl

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