Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What Happened to "12 Years a Slave"?

Chiwetel Ejiofor
It seemed like since its debut director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave was bound to sweep the Oscars. It was a powerful film about a dark time in America's history told through thought-provoking images that haunted the viewer. With performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o adding depth of unprecedented nature to the story, it seemed like it was bound to win everything and anything that stood in its path. With less than two weeks until the big ceremony however, things are starting to paint a different picture. Is the film's prestige too much of an issue, as it has allowed the conversation to grow stale and move onto other films?

The film made its debut at the Telluride Festival on August 30, 2013 to massive praise. Many hailed it as the next Schindler's List with belief that few films were likely to have as much emotional, historical, or artistic significance for the rest of the year. The fact is that this is for the most part true. Even if films like Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street made cinema fun to talk about, none balanced as much as  12 Years a Slave's sorrowful look at finding empathy in the human soul. Of course, seeing as it came from McQueen, a director notorious for slow, meditative movies, this breakthrough is already a success story, especially since he is unlikely the type to demand attention for his work. Even then, the fact that it has earned over $109 million worldwide only adds to the amazing achievement that is this film.

It came out in limited release on October 18 with the buzz building. By that point, it had been months of establishing that the film was going to be Best Picture. Nobody was disputing it. Seeing as how the only Best Picture film to open before it was Gravity (October 4), it didn't have much competition, especially in terms of prestige films. While Gravity remained a phenomenal conversation point and a box office behemoth, its respectability at the Oscars didn't feel like a surefire thing until it had proven itself. Even then, sci-fi films don't tend to do well at winning the Best Picture statue, making the entire endeavor a little more challenging. At most, it has almost locked down a Best Director statue for Alfonso Cuaron, whose visual ethics definitely go beyond deserving it.

When arguing the question "What happened to 12 Years a Slave?," it isn't meant to be seen as the film falling entirely out of conversation, as The Master did in last year's race. It is more to wonder why it went from seeing like the front runner to a potential upset. It only won one Golden Globe (Best Picture - Drama) and its track record has reflected likewise as well. Films such as American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club have emerged victorious and almost seem to be more talked about than 12 Years a Slave. In fact, the double trouble of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in the acting fields is proving to be one of the biggest challenges of them all, as they seem primed to win over Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender respectively. My argument is that Leto is less deserving of the win than Fassbender, but that is because Fassbender's performance is ferocious and memorable in ways that in any other given year, would be the reigning champion.

Of course, the real problem with 12 Years a Slave isn't anything to do with its historical context or significance. Many commentators have come to task with its depiction of slavery and claiming that there are better films out there. The whole ideal nature of it being "quintessential" has faded a bit as people had more time to think. To go deeper, McQueen is an unconventional filmmaker whose excess comes in the slow drawn out moments, which are meant to be unpleasant. Consider the scenes of human cruelty involving whipping or hanging. Those are not crowd-pleasing images, but more an artistic statement from a director who wants to display the horrors in an unbiased way that forces the audience to come to terms with it. The whole film is beautiful, which makes the torture more haunting. 

Left to right: Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, and Ejiofor
This isn't to say that the Oscars only reward happy films. However, consider that in recent years, darker films have lost including Zero Dark Thirty (to Argo), Winter's Bone and The Social Network (to The King's Speech), it does seem to suggest that the Academy may follow suit again. The film American Hustle, which is this year's biggest potential upset is considerably more upbeat and goofy and has a higher acclaimed cast. By comparison, 12 Years a Slave is bare minimalist approach to a genre and one that can be considered slow and boring on top of feeling exploitative. Yes, the film will singe images into the viewer's head unlikely to be forgotten, but the Academy tends to vote for "populous" films such as Argo or Slumdog Millionaire in replacing the word Best with the word "Universally enjoyed." There isn't anything necessarily wrong with this way of thinking, but it does damage the film largely.

This isn't to say that dark films have lost before. In the mid-00's, back-to-back winners The Departed and No Country for Old Men were bleak tales of death. Even before that, the 12 Years a Slave popular comparison Schindler's List won. The real advantage that the film has is that it is socially relevant to this era. There were countless films detailing Civil Rights in American culture, notably The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and 42. The topic has even been in Best Picture nominees in recent years, including The Help (2011) and Django Unchained (2012) with little sign of cooling off. The Academy has been building towards a potential sweep by a Civil Rights film that encapsulates all of these themes in a glorious, singular message. 12 Years a Slave is the closest so far that has come to that, even if every other film referenced in this paragraph has out-grossed it.

The real problem with 12 Years a Slave's momentum is that it somehow peaked too early, even in October. There was no strong comparison to be made for a threat at that point. Even the lackluster output of November did little to stop it. Hit December and suddenly The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, and American Hustle steal the glory in a crowded month of films that while majority didn't receive nominations, took focus away from 12 Years a Slave to an extreme degree. People were discussing Inside Llewyn Davis' chances and still speculating on how many nominations Saving Mr. Banks would procure. People already had established their opinions on 12 Years a Slave and needed a new talking point. 

It also hurt that its competition were success stories thanks to the word of mouth method. They didn't rely on immediacy, but slow build-up. Dallas Buyers Club and Her are the biggest benefactors of this, as both were unconsidered films that slowly gained steam as awards seasons rolled on. Their campaigns were stronger and their impressions benefit from the "last in line, first in mind" psychology. As it stands, one of 12 Years a Slave's biggest problematic points has been its marketing. While McQueen has claimed that Fassbender's nomination was on the screen, it didn't help to steer attention away from Leto's growing recognition. It was reported that Fassbender was in Australia shooting a film and was unable to do junkets and consideration campaigns. Much like Joaquin Phoenix's notorious anti-Oscar ramblings of last year, it seems like ignoring voters, even unintentionally, is a great way to not win.

In the end, what happened to the film? It peaked too early and was likely undermined by outside commitments. With Fassbender out of town and McQueen's visceral style proving somewhat of a challenge, the film became too much hype and not enough discovery. Audiences were more forced into seeing the film and thus were left to feel undermined in some fashion if they didn't like it. Even if the film remains a strong contender at the Oscars, its chances shrunk because it is a Steve McQueen film plain and simple. Not everyone responds to the horrific beauty equally. Even if it got all of the nominations, I worry that it is now too late for a sweep, if just because of its botched consideration campaigns. Hopefully there will be plenty of surprises come the big night, but that is a big if, considering how few other awards it has won so far.

Is 12 Years a Slave going to pull a lot of surprises on Oscar night? Is Michael Fassbender's absence too much of a detriment to a potential win? Is the film's lack of potential success more due to timing or challenging film making? 

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