For the last five months or so I had been hearing (or hearing about) almost nothing but downish reactions to 12 years A Slave. Particularly from middle-aged and older women. The first reaction I heard anywhere outside my clubby, critical realm was an email from a female screenwriter telling a female friend that she might want to think twice about seeing it, that it’s a rough sit. I never heard anyone speaking disrespectfully of Slave or asserting it wasn’t a good film, but never in my 30-plus years of covering this industry have I sensed less ardor about a Best Picture contender. When a film is likely to win you can always feel the warmth in the room. People like it and are saying so emphatically. You can always feel that current. But not this time.
I was astonished and overjoyed after Will Smith announced last night that Slave had won. It was obviously a very close vote with Alfonso Cuaron taking the Best Director Oscar (and let’s not forget that a good percentage of the Best Picture vote also went to American Hustle), but given what I’d been hearing all along I have to presume that many who didn’t see Steve McQueen and John Ridley‘s film voted for it anyway. They either felt guilt-tripped or they knew deep down, as I suggested in a 1.1.14 advertorial, that they’d be feeling a ton of morning-after regret (and therefore badly about themselves) if they gave the Best Picture Oscar to a space-ride thriller. And so Slave squeaked through.
“Academy members are known for giving the Best Picture Oscar to films they feel an emotional kinship with instead of ones they know deep down are more deserving,” I wrote. “Argo over Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook, The King’s Speech over The Social Network, Gladiator over Traffic and Erin Brockovich, etc. Heavy is the heart coping with Oscar-giver’s remorse. But this year there’s a chance to balance things out.
“It’s been said that Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave is a spoonful of strong medicine, but there’s no doubting that it’s a masterpiece — a disturbing but moral film about the gross malignancy that was 19th Century slavery. McQueen’s direction is direct and unsparing, and always focused on the humanity (or lack thereof). John Ridley‘s eloquent screenplay, the world-class performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, Sean Bobbitt‘s cinematography, Joe Walker‘s fleet editing, Hans Zimmer‘s hammer-blow score, etc. Slave may not offer conventional comforts but it’s as solid as iron. Giving it a Best Picture vote will carry no regrets the morning after. There’s no more compassionate film in contention.”
I’m not enough of a reality-detached egotist to suggest that people read what I wrote and went with Slave accordingly, but these observations and considerations got to them somehow, I believe. They felt in the end that they had to go with a film that mattered, that said something, that was strong of heart. But I’ll bet a lot of people just voted for it without having seen it. They trusted, based on the strong Slave passions they’d heard or read about, that they were doing the right thing.