Thursday, August 27, 2015

Theory Thursday: Chiwetel Ejiofor Should've Won Best Actor for "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Chiwetel Ejiofor starring in Z for Zachariah
Theory: The Best Actor Oscar should have gone to 12 Years a Slave (2013) instead of Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
It wasn't too long ago that Matthew McConaughey had a very impressive comeback. You couldn't escape him, whether it was in Magic Mike or The Wolf of Wall Street or even in his arguable best with the TV miniseries True Detective. Even Interstellar had its moments. His reputation as a hacky, shirtless actor was starting to fade in favor of an amazing career with nonstop hits released in gradual succession. It makes sense then why he would win Best Actor for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. Comparatively, it was a role that required a lot from him. He sacrificed his physique by dropping pounds and turning in a drama as an AIDS victim; a formula that previously worked for Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. In fact, his stream of critical success looks to be chugging on with no end in sight. If his Oscar suggests anything, it is the encapsulation of an actor surprising us all by "transforming" from a bad actor into one of the most engaging talents out there.

I am not here to refute that. McConaughey has become incessantly watchable in the past few years. I am not sure what snapped in him, but I am grateful that it has resulted in great work. Yet here's the thing that I must note: Dallas Buyers Club wasn't a great movie. I wouldn't even call it my favorite McConaughey movie of the past few years - better summarized as the McConaissance. Is it admirable work? Yes, but I don't know that the performance stands out in the annals of film history, let alone his career, as something exceptional. He lost weight and... most of the attention went to Jared Leto's Best Supporting Actor-winning role as a transgender character. I cannot think of too much that was exceptional about Dallas Buyers Club. Even the director, Jean-Marc Vallee, has done far better work with his follow-up Wild.

Then, what am I saying by all of this? I'm saying that McConaughey mostly won because he had a far more compelling story than Bruce Dern (Nebraska) - who hadn't been nominated since 1978 -, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Christian Bale (American Hustle) - a great actor who also was nominated because of weight change -, and personal favorite Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). What did these actors have to compete with? In all four cases, they were better films, but none of the actors had a story. None were making a comeback or turning in the performance that would "define" their career like McConaughey. Nobody lost weight and tackled LGBT subject matter, which has always been easy Oscar bait material. Frankly, this is one of the standout examples of an actor winning a "cumulative" Oscar for a career instead of a performance. The only payoff? McConaughey gives one hell of an acceptance speech each time out.

Now, to my point. If McConaughey shouldn't have won, who did? As mentioned, nobody had a great story. Their nomination wouldn't define their career. There is one exception, however: Chiwetel Ejiofor. While he has remained a hard working actor, I doubt he will make a film that is as significant as 12 Years a Slave. I doubt he will wrench that much emotion from his very glance ever again. Maybe he will be nominated again (I hope so), but it is doubtful that it will match the energy that is best epitomized in the above clip. All he is doing is singing along to "Roll Jordan Roll." Yet there is angst in his face as his voice cries out. There is hope in his performance. He doesn't need to be extroverted with his motives. The whole point is to show the endurance of a man wrongfully imprisoned. 

The common complaint is that 12 Years a Slave was slow, maybe even itself Oscar bait for preaching the obvious violence whites did to blacks. That is a base opinion that only holds so much ground. Yes, the film is full of depressing, dour scenes. Ejiofor is once seen hanging from a noose for several minutes. Yet here's the thing: it isn't exploitative. It is unflinching in ways that slavery dramas rarely are. We begin to sympathize with them because we can see the cruelty for its unbelievable reality. Much like I think that Michael Fassbender deserved to win over Leto, I think this film has some of the strongest performances in a Best Picture winner of the past 20 years. Director Steve McQueen is already a slow, meditative director who lets moments play out in real time. It is his art. He found a project that warranted the larger attention and threw his passion into it in a manner that worked wonders.

12 Years a Slave is an important film not because it panders to important topics. It's important because it tells a story of humanity. Beyond winning Best Picture, this film managed to inspire groups to institutionalize the book into school curriculum. While the memoir by Solomon Northup holds up on its own, I do think that a lot of credit should go to Ejiofor's performance. It is one that will ravage you and make you understand his turmoil. He may be too quiet for some, but it is the repression that's the point. He cannot react because he legally isn't allowed. Attention was thrown deservedly so to Lupita Nyong'o for her Best Supporting Actress-winning performance. It was one of the breakouts of the year. She also has some of the most intense scenes in the film. However, I do think that there's something to the ensemble that should have made this a more clear favorite in the acting categories. 

Now, Dallas Buyers Club is a fine movie with a performance worthy of that Oscar attention. I do think that he does a good enough job. However, I do think that the film hasn't aged well. It may be premature to claim, but it is going to be the least popular of the five nominees in 20 years. Not because of performance, but just because it's a familiar AIDS drama. Much like one looks throughout Oscar's rich history and becomes frustrated by the many odd wins, I do think that McConaughey will fall victim to that. I am willing to believe that he may get nominated again, but this is a performance that won't hold up. We'll eventually judge his filmography as a whole, and this might not even make his Top 5 best. 

Don't mistake that with personality, which McConaughey has a lot of. I simply think it's too conventional in a way that makes "brave" performances of the past look a little tame. For instance, why did Whoopi Goldberg win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ghost? I'm not saying it wasn't good, but the "time and context" shouldn't often be applied to great cinema. The medium should be timeless and at very least show ambitious progression to the medium. As a result, I think that the performances that win should reflect this. It is generally why I hold issue with Meryl Steep's now 19 nominations. She is a good performer, but there's too much hype around her being great to see the average from the great roles. Likewise, I don't see the McConaissance story being taught in Oscar history books to justify this one particular win.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh on McConaughey, I'm not trying to be. He is an actor with a personality that will resonate with audiences regardless of another Oscar win. I'm not saying that Ejiofor's win would have boosted his recognition (though he has been largely absent since), but it would have been one of those wins that felt important. We would look back and think that Oscars got it right. In fact, I think that future audiences will likely look at Ejiofor's performance the way that we look at Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. We would see those moments, singed in our brains. Yes, it is really depressing subject matter, but the dedication to the role is phenomenal. You believe it because they achieve it. It is a role you don't forget, only flipping to IMDb to wonder why he lost (funnily enough, Fiennes lost to Best Actor winner Tom Hanks, star of AIDS drama Philadelphia). It will be one of The Academy's many unanswerable questions.

Long after the McConaissance ends, we'll have to grapple with the idea that he won not because of talent, but because of the story. Yes, it works and Harvey Weinstein has made a career out of this. Yet, I do feel that it does tarnish the history books a little bit. With complaints that Dallas Buyers Club being somewhat transphobic as it is, the film already has a controversial legacy to withhold. It may be premature to claim that 12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest Best Picture winners of the past few decades, but it definitely feels like it is destined to. We cannot know until time proves it. Yet for the moment, I still think that its impact outweighs Dallas Buyers Club, and it is largely because of that performance. Maybe it makes McConaughey look better, but think to yourself: did he really deserve it? Ejiofor was much better with much less gimmick.


  1. I don't agree. 12 Years was your basic white savior movie: Brad Pitt saves Ejiofor. Had the director not been black, it would have come in for scathing criticism. Ejiofor is nothing but passive in this. Passivity is not compelling to watch. McQueen encouraged Fassbender, N'yongo and Cumberbatch to chew enough scenery to make Meryl Streep jealous. They effectively sidelined Ejiofor who does not have the charisma to dominate the screen when he has to compete for attention. 12 Years was also historically inaccurate as anyone read the book knows that Northrup considered Ford (Cumberbatch's character) to be an exemplary person despite owning slaves. McQueen portrayed Ford as a snivelling weakling.

    The only reason 12 Years won was because it had a black story to tell and a black director to tell it. It was politically correct. So Northrup gets his freedom because he was previously a free man but none of the other slaves were worth trying to save?

    If anything 12 Years will I think recede into obscurity. The movie is largely disliked by African Americans as it presents the story of a slave who had little personality and who never attempted to escape his condition. He waited around for producer Brad Pitt (in one of his lousier performances) to save him.

    As for McConaughey winning, it's worth remembering that Dallas Buyers Club (for which he was nominated) was probably his weakest performance of that year. He was better in Mud, in Wolf of Wall Street and in True Detective. Dallas Buyers Club was just an element that added to his dominance.

    1. I respect your disagreement, even if I don't fully understand the scenery-chewing comments. I do agree that Ejiofor's "passive" performance is likely what made it a little unappealing to voters.

      I also have read Northup's original memoir, so I knew going in the general beats of the story. Maybe Ford was a little bit different, but I don't feel there is that great of a difference. I still think Ford has humanity, even if it isn't entirely page-to-screen accurate. There isn't much difference.

      I do think there's a lot of "injustice" in the film (in response to the "worth trying to save" comment), but I do think it's true enough to the era depicted. American history is rich with bad calls, and slavery is up there. As a white man, my judgment of the film is skewered and I can understand the African American backlash. In general, I do take issue that all of the major black stories in cinema are about depressing subjects 3/5 times.I do think that we need to get out of that taboo and just make a positive drama about African Americans that is able to be respected without resorting to torturous experiences. With that said, I still like the movie from an artistic standpoint - as I generally have enjoyed Steve McQueen's work.

      As for McConaughey, I do think it's the hype of his comeback. You admit yourself that it was weak. Even if 12 Years a Slave hypothetically fades into obscurity, I think Dallas Buyers Club is going to fade more. We may disagree on this film, but I want to ask that between the five options that year, who was not "weak"? I am trying to leave this debate specific to those five nominees.

  2. Did you see Mud? That performance should have been nominated. If he had had 10 more minutes of screen time in WoWS, he would surely have got a supporting nod for that. That scene has become iconic.

    If you read through the comments from Academy voters last year who were polled by the Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly, McConaughey had 2/3 of the votes, runners up were Dern and Bale (which surprised me). Ejiofor had very little support and Di Caprio none. But these were mainly actors and directors polled and they know what does and does not go into a performance. The fact that Ejiofor played a "noble" and hard-done-by (if passive) character doesn't really enter into their calculations. The fact that he didn't have an arc to his character (as McConaughey did with his), Northrup being pretty much the same person at the beginning and end of the film, did count against him. The Academy loves a story of redemption and Northrup didn't redeem himself like Ron Woodroof did.

    It's strange you think Ejiofor should have won, you'd have to fight that out with all the Leo Fangurls and Fanboys who are convinced their favorite actor was robbed!

    Keep in mind as well that since Selma and Ava Du Vernay who (like McQueen) cast mostly British actors in her film, there is something of a backlash over black British actors getting choice roles over their African American counterparts - the same issue is arising as with white American actors losing out to white British actors. That issue is not going away and though the Academy has bent over backwards for British actors (Eddie Redmayne being a prime example. Gyllehaal gave a much better performance and wasn't even nominated.) the backlash is going to increase.

    I think Dallas Buyers Club will do fine in the long run. McConaughey and Leto's performances were worthy of Oscars and the film itself (which cost 1/3 of what 12 Years cost) was something of a guerrilla filmmaking experience but Vallee gave it a light touch and a lot of humor which made the tragedy even more striking. 12 Years was unrelentingly grim and depressing. In the scenery chewing department, I forgot ot mention Sarah Paulson who was also way OTT.

    1. I guess my issue is that I just didn't think about Dallas Buyer Club a lot in the past two years. I understand that the showier roles will get attention and yes, McConaughey had a more noteworthy arc. I guess I just believe that there's more *nuance* to Ejiofor that benefits his character and his arc is endurance. I guess that's a cop out take.

      Am I offended that McConaughey won? Not exactly. I've learned to be pleased that anyone I enjoyed even gets nominated nowadays. I hold a lot of value in that. I will be honest that I don't care about that Leonardo DiCaprio "Let me win an Oscar" meme. It's more of a joke than legitimate argument anymore. Though yes, WoWS is another one that has gotten better with age. You're also right about McConaughey in that. Such a great performance. And yes, I saw Mud. I think the issue there is that 2013 was mostly picking nominees from the last third of the year and all the great stuff before that got screwed over.

      If we're going to talk about black British actor backlash, I think we should also note that Dallas Buyers Club had complaints from LGBT groups for Leto's performance and the general homophobia because McConaughey starts off a bigot. I think it would be tough to really not accuse both films for having their share of problems.

      In general, I think the white British actor thing has always been bothersome. I hate the notion that because they're from England, they're automatically charming. Yes, there's a class to their personality, but you're right in noting that Americans are losing great roles (of both races). I presume you are talking about Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (because I feel like Southpaw ain't getting him anywhere. Even those fanboys failed to raise attention), which I agree should have gotten him something - because it did get a Best Original Screenplay nomination, so someone saw it.

      To give a very controversial opinion (based on my friends, anyways), I hated The Imitation Game and I don't get the Cumberbatch love at all. He's flatter in that film than Ejiofor was, and the gay subject matter was squandered for less interesting areas. I feel he is reflective of the white argument more than Redmayne - who at least put in some physicality to his role.

      In a just world, it would be about nominating the best actors. With everyone harping earlier this year about Oscars being too white, I do think this is a sort of silly debate to have, even if it is real. As for the black British roles, I do think there's room for argument, because I unfortunately cannot name you even five "prestigious" black American actors. You could say Denzel Washington or Will Smith, but even they aren't in our conversation's key demographic (the Ejiogor and Oyelowo age group).

      Agree to disagree on 12 Years a Slave, as I can appreciate it as art even if I acknowledge that it is very depressing and thus I likely won't watch much. However, I must ask if you feel that way about generally perceived "great" films that are depressing. I'll just use the example of Schindler's List (which I argue remains revered). Do you think it has the longevity that 12 Years a Slave lacks?

  3. Interesting. I think a great film is never depressing. But a tragedy needs to have an element of levity (as Shakespeare knew), otherwise it becomes so bleak it's a pure turn-off.

    I agree about Cumberbatch. He's coy and fey and totally overrated. Poor Gyllenhaal was so good in Nightcrawler, pity Southpaw won't put him over the top this year and Demolition (despite Vallee behind the camera, with his good Oscar batting average) is probably not Oscar baity enough. I think Oyelowo's lack of a nomination last year might in fact be due to 12 Years getting a little too much attention last year. So many Academy voters admitted they had voted for 12 Years but couldn't bring themselves to actually watch the film because they thought it was too depressing.

    When I saw 12 Years in a theater, there were 2 African Americans in the audience with a full theater of white patrons. It was - to me - sort of a white guilt film that appeals to liberals (of which I am one) but not to African Americans who found the whole story just another reminder of past humiliations.

    A film about someone who revolted against slavery like Nat Turner (despite the slaughtered white women and kids) would be a more interesting protagonist than Solomon Northrup I think. Nate Parker is apparently trying to get a film made about Turner.