Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

12 Years a Slave
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Written By: John Ridley (Screenplay), Solomon Northup (Book)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 134 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o)

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
-Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing
-Best Production Design

Other Best Picture Nominees

-American Hustle
-Captain Phillips
-Dallas Buyers Club
-The Wolf of Wall Street

And the winner is...

Every now and then, there comes along a film that is revolutionary; shifting the whole medium's perspective on a certain subject. As much as culture has been shifted over the decades on how to interpret action and comedy, it's rarely that history comes to life in new, engrossing manners. Along with Schindler's List, director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave isn't just another film about a dark time in history. It is the revolution in how we talk about slavery in general. With grueling long takes and heartbreaking performances, the film is rich with substance. It is art with purpose; asking us to not look away. It may not be the most upbeat or fun Best Picture winner in history, but it is among the most important socially.

The idea of making a film about slavery had long been on the mind of McQueen. Following his career in the art house cinema, he felt ambition to make a film regarding slavery. During a Creative Artists Agency screening of McQueen's directorial debut Hunger, he ran into writer John Ridley, of whom  he planned to collaborate with. It didn't pan out and McQueen didn't become inspired until his wife gave him a copy of Solomon Northup's autobiographical "Twelve Years a Slave." It was like a revelation to him. He compared its depiction of slavery in the antebellum south to Anne Frank during World War II. He felt that the story was important, thus dedicating his life to bring the story to life. By 2011, he would finally get backing - in part from Brad Pitt's Plan B company. Many have since accused Pitt of being cast as the hero. Pitt claims that it was solely so that the film could maintain backing.

The most notable issue with the casting is that of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Northup role. He initially felt that the subject matter was too disturbing and thought that he would have trouble doing it. McQueen convinced him that this was the role of a lifetime, which sealed the deal. Sarah Paulson was solely cast because McQueen's daughter thought that her audition tape was scary. The film would be the cinematic debut of Lupita Nyong'o and featured the reunion Beasts of the Southern Wild actors Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, both of which was their second movie. Michael Fassbender was the shoe-in, as he had worked with McQueen on his last two films Hunger and Shame

McQueen was a director known for his long takes and taking influence from artistic resources. When describing the look of the film, he compared it to artist Francisco Goya, claiming that the painter's gruesome imagery forced you to focus on the travesty and find a deeper understanding of the piece. 12 Years a Slave was shot predominantly in Louisiana in 35 days around four actual plantations, some of which were referenced in the book. In one case, a scene involving a tree where a runaway slave is hung is actually located near an actual grave site. Additional scenes were shot in New Orleans. McQueen went through extra effort to make sure that everyone had an effective accent. Despite there not being recorded evidence of how slaves talked, he based it largely off of the literary style of the time. However, the most impressive thing of all was that he shot most of the film on one camera.

The setting helped the actors to adjust to the harsh subject matter, even causing some to consider that it was like dealing with ghosts. Fassbender, who has the most violent and controversial role in the film, likely did the most preparation. For starters, he had his beard drenched in alcohol so that his co-stars would react correctly. Prior to filming the notorious whipping scene, which was shot in one four minute take, he and Nyong'o did a meditation exercise that involved staring into each other's eyes. This was considered to give them focus and trust as actors forced to undergo something otherwise seen as traumatic. While Fassbender may seem like someone committed to the evils of his character, he passed out momentarily following a rape scene, also involving Nyong'o. He wasn't the only one who suffered this sort of trauma. Michael K. Williams noted on The Arsenio Hall Show that while filming what would become a deleted scene, he became overwhelmed and wouldn't stop panicking. 

Much to McQueen's relief, the film was an immediate success with critics and audiences. While the film was planned to have a December release, the date was moved up because of acclaim. While Fox Searchlight had the rights to distribute, it shared the profits with the companies that independently financed it. With ads targeting art house and black audiences, the film slowly rolled out while the marketing compared the film favorably to other challenging movies, including Schindler's List and The Passion of the Christ. The film was so successful with audiences that it even received free, unpaid endorsements from various celebrities including Michael Moore, Kanye West, and P. Diddy; two of whom named it their favorite film of 2013. Still, it was a film considered to be of major importance, and thus was predicted to win Best Picture since before its release.

Without any major surprises, 12 Years a Slave did win Best Picture. It because the first film ever to win the category that featured a black director and black producer (both McQueen). It was the first film that won to use Arabic numbers instead of spelled out or Roman numerals; making it the fifth Best Picture winner with a number in the title. It is also the 12th movie to win with only three Oscar wins. Nyong'o was the only actor to win from the film. She was also the 16th actress to win for her acting debut and the 9th to win in Best Supporting Actress. Overall, the film was considered to be neck and neck with Gravity during awards season, even tying at the Producers Guild Awards for Best Picture. While 12 Years a Slave featured a lot of firsts for Best Picture, it was also the first year that a Mexican director (Alfonso Cuaron) won Best Director. Overall, it was a progressive and diverse year for winners.

There was considered to be a conflict between McQueen and Ridley over the writing credit. This was evident when neither thanked the other during their acceptance speeches, and McQueen looked to be sarcastically clapping during Ridley's speech. This has lead many to question just how much Ridley contributed to the film, especially since he got sole writing credit. While McQueen hasn't commented on the matter, Ridley has mentioned in subsequent interviews that the reason for the credit is because of rules in the Writers Guild of America. He even went so far as to praise working with McQueen. Considering that the writer has since gone on to more politically-charged works including American Crime, there's not much dispute on Ridley's authenticity. Though McQueen's input would definitely help to squash the beef once and for all.

The legacy of 12 Years a Slave is still young and doesn't have too much significantly added to culture. While it has made the conversation regarding racial depiction in film a lot more open and interesting, there has yet to be a considerable change in tide. However, in the wake of the film's success, the book and film were optioned to be added to public high school curriculum. This idea, with help from financier Montel Williams, has since been approved. While Ridley has gone on to make the Emmy-nominated TV series American Crime, which is about race relations in America, none of the supporting cast has really had an impressive boom in career. Fassbender has fared the best, having appeared in Steve Jobs, of which he may receive his second Oscar nomination for. Nyong'o has appeared in a handful of films, including 2016's live remake of The Jungle Book. McQueen is currently working on a TV series called Codes of Conduct, which has yet to air as of this publication.

While the story of slavery is one that is ingrained in American history, it has been rare that a film comes along to change the way that it is discussed. 12 Years a Slave isn't just a moving portrait of a gruesome period. It is history brought to life in artistic and invigorating ways. While many may be repulsed by its dark nature, it's still a film that establishes its importance early and often. Hopefully as time goes on, it will be a film that is remembered for everything that it did right. It became an emotionally wrenching experience, bringing to life history in a manner that feels all too real. For now, it's the best of the Best Picture winners in 20 years. If there comes one that stands to be as powerful and moving as this, then we're in for quite a future of cinema.

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