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Burning Questions: Is '12 Years a Slave' Really Too Rough For Oscar?

Michael Cusumano here. Oscar balloting closed 24 hours ago and this final crunch before Oscar night has me pondering the gap between pre-Fall buzz and the reality heading into the big ceremony.

If the breathless predictions about 12 Years a Slave that sounded out of Toronto last September were to be believed there should have been zero suspense left in the Best Picture race long ago. Like The King’s Speech before it, McQueen’s film appeared to be such a direct hit to the Academy’s sweet spot that many called the race then and there. So what happened? 12 Years may still emerge victorious but why isn’t it rolling over the competition like a Sherman Tank? 

The popular theory is that 12 Years is turning off the more squeamish voters with its unsparing physical and emotional violence. These voters are supposedly fleeing to the comforts of Gravity, which is nerve-shredding but in the unthreatening context of an action-thriller. This seems logical enough but I wonder if it's too easy an answer.

Is 12 Years a Slave really too rough for awards voters? Or is something larger at play?

I would argue the real thing holding back McQueen’s film isn’t its brutality but its lack of catharsis. The unspoken agreement with the audience is that a film like Slave might push the limits of your endurance but that will make it all the more sweet when the hero is triumphant at the end. To put it bluntly, Steve McQueen's film doesn't deliver the happy ending goods. A film can get away with depicting the most appalling of horrors if it wraps things up on a note of uplift. Conversely, if a film doesn’t make audiences leave the theater feeling terrific, it’s going to be a tough sell no matter how noble its message. 

Just look at Schindler’s List. One could argue its catalogue of cruelties surpasses that of 12 Years a Slave, yet rarely has history seen a bigger Oscar lock. That the film wasn’t held back by its violence can be attributed to a variety of reasons (Spielberg’s clout, media attention, strong box office) but a big factor was surely that even amid the film’s atrocities its ultimate emphasis was on Schindler’s success. Schindler couldn’t do everything, but he did what he could, and to paraphrase Ben Kingsley’s character “there will be generations” as a result.

Solomon Northup also uses everything in his power to fight back, but unlike the hero of Spielberg’s film, most of his efforts amount to nothing. His attempts to contact the outside world are betrayed, the sympathetic plantation owner turns a deaf ear to his pleading, and his escape on foot is stopped cold at a lynching before it has barely begun. The film is clear: Solomon’s courage and cleverness will not save him. Yes Solomon is ultimately set free thanks to a combination of luck and the kindness of strangers but by that point he has all but given up. His belated freedom does little to erase the despair of Solomon joining the other slaves in singing “Roll Jordan Roll” essentially resigning himself to his fate.

I have little doubt 12 Years a Slave would be cruising to a double-digit Oscar tally if McQueen found an ending like the final moments of Schindler’s List where the surviving Schindler Jews are revealed, living proof of Oskar Schindler’s accomplishment. Any joy the viewer might take at Solomon Northup’s liberation is tempered by the devastating final scene where Solomon finds time has made strangers of his family. Likewise, Schindler’s List ends with Ralph Fiennes monstrous Amon Geoth hanged and the Nazis destroyed. In Slave, Fassbender’s plantation owner not only escapes unscathed, but Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsy is left behind in his clutches, to suffer for the rest of her days, one assumes.

If Gravity is victorious on March 2nd some will express surprise that an action movie trumped a film that superficially appears to be far more Oscar-friendly. But a look beyond the surface should make it clear that Gravity’s inspiring theme of rebirth and release from the past places it closer to the Academy comfort zone than the grim, uncompromising realities of 12 Years a Slave. The film’s pivotal image may be Solomon marching to freedom with Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps spitting venom at him every step of the way. One man escapes but society is unchanged. The poison stays in the bloodstream. The unsettling implication being that it remains there to this day. 

Previous Burning Questions. Follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or visit his personal blog Serious Film

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Reader Comments (29)

Could we discuss this movie without Schindler's List?

I like Schindler's List and think the outpouring of support was a combination of things one of which 12 Years a Slave doesn't have is identification for the voting audience. The larger voter bloc of white males nearly half of which are Jewish.

You want to know why they wouldn't dare vote for Denzel Washington for the win for Malcolm X -- you'd understand instantaneously that the black experience in America makes non-racists whites uncomfortable because they feel these stories makes them complicit in what transpired. It would also make them have to address current day to day racist decisions made in their own industry where they'd rather wash their hands of the whole thing.

Slave was never going to find an easy path because voting bodies don't like touching things they're suppose to embrace because they're suppose to be liberal and make progressive voting decisions. Behind close doors they let their truth be known through systematic denial of Slave when assigning awards at these televised precursors. And if there's an alternative with another important issue (Dallas Buyers Club) the resisters to Slave will beat the drum harder for the "even more" important alternative.

I was naive like Solomon to assume Chiwetel Ejiofor's past creative ties to some of the biggest auteurs in the business and well respected among his peers in the ensembles he was apart of would back in a victory easy.

Notice the kind of national conversations that are allowed about race. The usage of the n-word. Not about racist policy or attitudes. No can white people have the privilege of using the n-word without repercussions and accusations of racism!

This is still a white supremacist society with a black man in the white house.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

No. It's a film which shows abjection for the sake of it. I'm not from the USA (South America here) and I still can't believe the reviews it got there. In my country (the film) was justly whipped, just like the poor Patsey. What's the use? I think the lack of catharsis is not the ONLY problem this misery parade presents. It's ROOTS without the empathy. And I'm sorry, but we don't need a white canadian carpenter to tell us in our face what's wrong with slavery like its is a high school lecture. We (the audience) are smart enough to find it out for ourselves. Aren't we? Only when Solomon starts to sing along this film liberates itself from the chains. Elsewhere, is just as alternately gruesome and constipated as McQueen wants it to be.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

If we're going to compare it to a Holocaust movie, I think it's closest cousin is actually The Pianist, which is another film about one man's struggle to survive and achieving through sheer dumb luck and the kindness of other people. Roman Polanski is anther filmmaker who refuses to offer his audiences a catharsis, because in his films, every character who tries to be a hero fails miserably and leaves things even worse off than they were (see Chinatown or Ghost Rider as ther examples of this theme). Just like Solomon Northup, Szpilman is a man who survived the horrors of his specific situation, but could do nothing t avoid or help that of those around him. By the end of the film his family is dead, most of the people he's known is dead, and he couldn't even help the person who helped him. That film won three Oscars including Best Director, so we'll see what happens with 12 Years a Slave. It is difficult to watch and while I mostly think it's terrific, I do agree that the scenes with Brad Pitt are the worst part. Anyway, just wanted to throw that out there....

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

chofer -- WOW. Come on. Be fair. You cannot honestly touch this subject without showing misery. This film instantly renders other films about slavery poorly dated and fake because they refused to fully acknowledge the human cost of it. And why should there be catharsis (though i'd argue that there is with the reunion with his family) when solomon's freedom was largely luck. the nightmare remained and lived on without him.

i love this movie. and i love the very last paragraph of this article for pointing out the poison in the bloodstream

3rtful -- i don't even know where to begin with all that other than to say that disagree with every word of it and i really hope you aren't implying what i think you're implying with the n-word bit. YIKES. but anyway Acknowledging a problem does not make you complicit in it. Quite the opposite. It means you can be of help in moving forward toward solution. People who refuse to engage with racism -- even if they aren't racist themselves -- are only helping to reinforce status quo and thus complicit in keeping racism alive.

but also i have no idea what you're on about with "assigning awards" the Academy has *no* control over what precursors do and there aren't secret meetings wherein these things happen except for groups that are small enough to get together and make group decisions ... which is not very many groups.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

richter -- good point about The Pianist.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathan - Jesus Christ it isn't an anti-whitey manifesto.

You're the kind of person who claims they love honesty, but when they receive it, they honestly don't know what to do with themselves. Makes sense now when you ask the same questions about unfairness or the unpopularity of something you love. You refuse to engage in realities you fail to acknowledge and entertain.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

3rtful -- i'll just be honest then and say that i reread your comment and it's not my refusal to engage so much as my utter confusion as to what you're even trying to say with all that.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat, I give you the misery but I don't need the low angle POV of Patsey's back. That's no honesty It's unnecesary abjection and therefore kind of dishonest, actually. And the cost of it...to whom, really? I would have like to known a little more more about the costs for the faceless stunts that pass like slaves here. The ones who weren't born free or educated, like Solomon. I know, I know, It's HIS story. So what about HIS family, then? Why deny us with insight about his wife and children apart from very few and pontless moments in the beginning? I felt unnmoved with the "reunion" because these people were just as strange to me as they were (apparently) to Solomon. And that really rang hollow to me. I was never allow to feel for them because I never knew them in the first place. But i did know ALL about his white patrons. And Solomon is really kind of a Darwinian figure to me as opposed to someone remotely human .No sense of community with the rest whatsoever (except when singing along with the rest). A lonely character adrift on his smarts to get by himself practically oblivious of the fate of his fellow slaves. A white man among black slaves. At least, as presented in the film. A survivor for being the most apt (and no, being illustrated may have caused him some troubles, but nowhere near as many as Patsey's; the real "hero" of the film if there ever was one -and the rest of the faceless cotton pickers, too- Solomon had contacts in the end, someone who recognized him as one of the "elite"; and that ultimately saved him. So, sadly, I had no real empathy for him, nor his family My heart were with the whipped ones; the humillated ones to gruesome effect by McQueen. So, my bad.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

Nathan - Highlight specific text and I'll clarify them.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I think Michael (Michael is the OP, not Nathaniel btw) is onto something here.

One thing that has stuck with me is when Solomon has regained his freedom and he turns back to see Patsey, still stuck here, probably for the rest of her life. He has escaped, but the larger injustice remains, and the vast majority of those enslaved were never able to find anything but transient relief. It utterly deflates what could have been an inspiring moment, and because McQueen is so deliberate in everything he does I believe that this moment of near-catharsis ending on a bummer note is intentional.

I think that the movie is also intentional in showing the lie of a 'benevolent slaver'. Benedict Cumberbatch's character is discussed by Solomon and Eliza, with Eliza showing a far more negative view on him; I think this is confirmed by his actions in the film. He gives Solomon a violin, but eventually gives him to the sadistic and violent Epps rather than recognize his rights as a free man, likely b/c it would throw his enslavement of others into stark relief as a violation of human rights.

Also, since this is TFE, I will mention that I am still mad Ejiofor is probably not even the spoiler in the Best Actor race! That close-up at the end where he looks right at the camera just chills me. I think he is seeing my soul!

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

12 Years a Slave is not "rough". It's real. It's a historic reality. Some people thinks its "rough" because the movie actually says "yeah, there was a time we were a slaver country". And thats History and we must learn from that.

People hide on the "rough" word when they are too bothered by reality. This film could have actually been a lot more brutal but McQueen did it just right.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPablo (Col)

Pablo just nailed it. This film is that rarity--it's almost perfect.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I agree that "12 Years" is brilliant, but it is a curious mixture of the borderline unbearable (the whipping of Patsy, the slave dance, the auction, etc.) and the cooly reserved, hands-off approach (Solomon's near-hanging, the lack of catharsis involving the loathsome overseer whom we REALLY want to see get it, the reunion with his family which is the complete antithesis of "The Color Purple"). On some level this just-the-facts-but-here-it-is-warts-and-all approach is spectacularly successful--the movie is never obviously jerking your chain or punching your emotional buttons, as some of Spielberg's films do--but it can also be a little bit distant. But if the film were MORE emotional, it might be unbearable. Though "Gravity" is a hell of a thrill ride and Bullock is spectacular, it is ultimately just a hell of a thrill ride--Bullock is what gives it gravitas, and she's out against Cate Blanchett. That leaves "American Hustle," which was directed by David O. Russell who's now been snubbed twice with "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" (which I disliked but lots of people loved)--and he's clearly an actors' director with an affinity for large ensembles, which may woo lots of voters. I'd actually flip the votes around and think "Gravity" should win Best Picture and "12 Years" Best Director--but don't be surprised if "American Hustle" slides right into the vote-split and walks away with one or both of the big ones. (If I ran the world, I'd give Best Picture to "Dallas Buyers Club," the most completely successful film of the nominees IMHO--but I don't run the world, and no gay-themed or gay-adjacent film aside from arguably the subtextual "Midnight Cowboy" has ever won Best Picture. So there you are.)

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Yeah this article is spot on with my thoughts on 12 Years A Slave. A pristine film, but it's not a satisfying film, especially not in the way Oscar likes. That it's purposefully not satisfying only adds to its perfection, and it is a film that has been desperately needed, but it's not an experience that rewards you for watching it. Even as someone who thinks its perfect, I've had a hard time reconciling the emotional experience of it with my intellectual experience of it.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

The lack of catharsis is definitely a big part of it. People like to rag on the "I could have done more" speech in Schindler's List, but I guarantee you, if there was a comparable moment in 12 Years a Slave, this thing would be the unstoppable awards juggernaut everyone thought it would be.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

The irony here is that Oscar loves its message films, but only if they are packaged in a neat and pretty box. That is not this movie. That is its power and truth.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I think there's a really interesting discussion here about if a film needs to have catharsis or satisfaction to be a good film. According to Oscar, it does, but I think McQueen has deliberately subverted this. It would have arguably been a more cathartic ending had Solomon not been able to escape (making the film a study on hopelessness), but because he does, and how little significance it has in the scheme of things, I think the film is able to tie its message more effectively to the enduing legacy of slavery in America. In a way, it takes that lack of finality out of the film and into the present, real world. Great article, Michael!

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPJay

Very good article, Michael!

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I don't really want to touch the discussion in the front of this thread because to me 12 Years a Slave was trying to be abject, it was trying to avoid having catharsis because catharsis lets the audience feel good by the end. The point of the last two scenes (seeing Patsey left behind as Solomon leaves and the reuniting with his family) is to intentionally stop any feeling of catharsis. We are Solomon as he does what a former slave never did for him for patsey, acknowledge their reality. We don't get closure because thats not the point of the story. And for people who criticize this film for not being Schindler's List there are plenty of people (myself being one of them) who criticize Schindler's List as a white-saviour holocaust sensationalist revisionist fantasy. Not that it is a bad film, but that it doesn't give the victims of the holocaust the frank acknowledgement that they deserve. If 12 Years gets BP with this subversion of Oscar-typical, I will be a very happy cinephile.

Onto the lighter topic of if the above will play to the Oscar Voters. I'm actually on the American Hustle train for Best Picture. I think that about 1/3 of the voters will be voting for 12 Years and 1/3 will vote for Gravity and the rest will be split. But because its a ranked ballot I think that American Hustle will rack up 2nd and 3rd place votes and when it comes down to the top four (12, Gravity, AH, and WoWS in my eyes) it will depend on if the WoWS fans among the voters agree with the trends we'd see on social media (in which case they'll flock to 12) or if they'll defer to American Hustle. Either way I can see American Hustle beating either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave because of its lower ballot support. Although if either of them can do it I'd say it'd be 12 Years.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterQueermyntcritic

More than ever, I want 12 Years to win, but Queermyntcritic is onto something in that second paragraph wrt Hustle and Wolf. I've been thinking along those lines for a while now, even though I always end up with "And the Oscar goes to...Gravity!"

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Why do they use the preferential ballot? It's fucked up.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I'm with Nathaniel - I think there IS catharsis in that last scene when Solomon reunites with his family. For me, that scene was pretty much perfect.

I don't think that 12 Years a Slave's brutality is what's holding it back, though. I think the CONVERSATION about it's brutality is. If people just said "it's brutal, but it's also a great film", then I think the more squeamish filmgoers out there might just make the attempt to sit through it. But instead, the conversation is about how the film is "torture porn" and not just violent and brutal but TOO violent and TOO brutal, which to my mind, makes the film sound like a far more difficult sit (or at least, a difficult sit for much different reasons) than it actually is, and makes the squeamish far less likely to see it.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I am glad for the existence of 12 Years A Slave and thing the movie "wins" either way. If the Academy votes for it, then the Academy wins too, but if they don't vote for it (and of course, even if it doesn't win, plenty of people voted for it), then they're not ready for this kind of movie.

Oscar history is full of lousy movies winning Best Picture. Some were even lousy when they won (Crash?), but most are considered lousy once the razzle-dazzle has passed (Greatest Show On Earth, Around The World In 80 Days, etc.). I think if Gravity wins it will be considered a worthy winner, even if history treats it as an also-ran. I'm not sure if I feel hopeful about American Hustle though. :-)

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I did not find the physical violence in 12YaS brutal. I found the situation they were living in brutal. And I agree that the word of mouth of how "brutal" the film is could keep some from watching it. I always felt this was a campaign ploy to diminish its chances. Brutality is not new to BP winners (Argo, Hurt Locker), so I don't think that is the issue unless you build a narrative that it is excessive and therefore unhonorable. I felt 12YaS was pretty perfect with minor quibbles and will be happy to see it win.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

denny: Yeah, guys? It's not bleeping Saw or, worse still, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning! THOSE are torture porn. That term is not supposed to be about indiscriminantly condemning ALL brutal/gory content, it's supposed to be calling out movie's where making things as gory as possible is the goal over characterization, nuance, wit or daring. Twelve Years a Slave is more like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at least in terms of on-screen gore levels, if not also occasional moments of cinematography and editing and I'd actually love to see a comparative look between the two. If you want to say it's "poverty porn" (like, say, Precious) or related to it, that seems like a more thought out critique, even if I wouldn't necessarily agree with it.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

People who need catharsis in 12 Years a Slave are, quite frankly, basic bitches. And the type of people that probably loved The Blind Side. Film does not need a happy ending. Especially if there wasn't one in real life. The fact that this film doesn't follow your usual conventions in that sense makes it even more special.

And anyone that thinks this film was too "brutal" or whatever is stupid. This was REALITY. People are just uncomfortable with the truth.

I'm sorry, but this kind of stuff really annoys me. The Pianist was very similarly brutal and unflinchingly honest (when I saw it I noticed how it just focuses on telling the story and isn't worried about making the audience feel a certain way, like Schindler's List) and I don't recall these kind of issues with that movie. That makes me think this is, again in America, a race issue. Even if it's subconscious. This is black history, and this is what white people did to black people not long ago. They lived it, so learn it. In all its "brutal" glory. Be educated.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Catharis and happy endings are not the same thing. I don't understand why you keep assuming that.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue: Well, they ARE related, sure, but there are happy endings that aren't cathartic ones. The reunion with the family was (kind of) a happy ending, sure, but it wasn't a cathartic one. It's a Wonderful Life's ending was kind of the same way, with Mr. Potter implicitly getting away scot free. Happy ending is: Our protagonist gets some measure of satisfaction and happiness. Cathartic ending is: That, plus the villain getting punished for his evil acts.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I don't get the "too brutal" argument since we know things like that not only happened, but even worse happened. Now if the violence felt exaggerated or invented in that things like that never happened, but we know it did and I see nothing wrong in depicting that. Me thinks the "too brutal" camp are probably the people experiencing a bit of "retroactive guilt"

March 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBee

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