For best picture, it has to be ‘12 Years a Slave’

For best picture, it has to be ‘12 Years a Slave’

The question of what makes a best picture the best picture is a perennial stumper at Oscar time, which is when even the most casual movie fans are known to become re-traumatized remembering the 1977 ceremony, at which “Rocky” beat out “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network,” or 1999, when “Shakespeare in Love” took the honor over Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan.”

Sunday’s ceremony is unlikely to result in outrage. Put simply, last year’s movies and this year’s crop of best picture nominees were of such exceptional quality that it’s possible to accept almost all of them as the finest of 2013, depending on your criteria.

Gravity,” a breathtaking technical and commercial achievement, has invested new energy and vision into the simple genre popcorn movie (and made a ton of money to boot). The infectiously exuberant caper “American Hustle” — along with “Gravity,” a presumed front-runner in the best picture race — possesses the kind of liberated joie de vivre that sent audiences out of the theater with big smiles on their faces — staking a claim for sheer entertainment value that academy members are within their rights to encourage. Even if “Her” or “Nebraska” “Captain Phillips” were to sneak up from behind to play spoiler, each would do so as an exquisite portrait of our times, when technology, economic collapse and globalism have left so many people isolated and dispossessed.

Still, even in the face of such eminently worthy competition, “12 Years a Slave” deserves to win — as great art, cultural bellwether and historic statement.

There’s no question that “12 Years a Slave,” British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a 19th-century autobiographical narrative by Solomon Northup, is a staggering artistic achievement. Working with a script by John Ridley, McQueen smoothly threads viewers through Northup’s journey from the freedom he was born into in Upstate New York to being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he spends several arduous years trying to escape. Eliciting searing, expressive performances from actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, McQueen tells the story simply, following Northup’s harrowing chronicle with enough discretion to avoid being exploitative, but with enough intimacy that viewers are immediately invested in Northup’s plight, as well as his excruciating, hard-won catharsis.

In many ways, that kind of emotional impact defines what academy voters are looking for in a best picture — not a feel-good movie as much as a feel- deeply movie. What’s more, recognition of “12 Years a Slave’s” achievement would provide fitting recognition of 2013 as an exceptional year for African American films, filmmakers and stories — a year that included such mainstream hits as “42,” “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ ” and “The Best Man Holiday,” the astonishing debut of “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler and the stylistic range represented by indies like “Mother of George,” “Newlyweeds” and “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.”

No one would argue that “12 Years a Slave” should win as a symbol of Black Film (whatever that means anymore). It deserves to win if only because it advances cinematic language in ways that feel daring and new. McQueen, who before making feature films created installations in museums and galleries, approaches his work with thoughtful, even elegant formalism, in the case of “12 Years a Slave” with long, quiet takes during which the audience is invited simply to observe the characters and their environment; he’s not one for flashy editing or facile ma­nipu­la­tion. At once lush and austere, his aesthetic is always highly disciplined, each shot carefully staged, selected and juxtaposed with another to create a level of sensory communication altogether separate from but complementary to the explicit plot. Like “Gravity,” McQueen’s film has also created its own singular grammar, merging the straightforward storytelling of classical film narrative with bold, almost abstract, experimentation to create a “third space” between past and present.

In one of the film’s most wrenching sequences, Northup is hanged as a punishment, his toes barely touching the muddy ground while he fights for his life; gradually, we see life on the plantation go on behind him, a wordless tableau that forces the audience to confront and sit with brutality that was so common at the time as to be not worth an idle glance.

Later, when Northup realizes he might have a possibility of getting a letter out to his family in New York, McQueen pauses, resting the camera on Ejiofor’s face, his expression one of fear, cautious hope, and determination not to succumb to heartbreaking self-deception. Juxtaposing the historical images of “12 Years a Slave” with a haunting electronic score by Hans Zimmer, McQueen doesn’t just content himself with telling the story; he creates, with sound and image, a whole other layer of sensory experience, as potent and expressive as Ejiofor and his cast-mates are in their commitment to realism.

That realism plays an important role that extends beyond Northup’s compelling story and into Hollywood’s history itself. In explicit and subtle ways, “12 Years a Slave” does its part to dismantle — or at least puncture — a century of toxic misrepresentations of the slavery-era South that, drenched in moonlight, magnolias and various degrees of revisionism, have helped distort a racial history that America still finds challenging to process. From the depraved freed slaves of “The Birth of a Nation” to the infantilized mammies and house servants of 1940 best picture winner “Gone With the Wind,” Hollywood has helped perpetuate some of the most toxic lies about Old Dixie as a world of romance, gentility and benign white privilege.

The real Northup was a skilled carpenter and violinist before being captured and sold into slavery. (The Washington Post)

McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” offers an elegant retort, inviting viewers to luxuriate in the verdant lushness and well-appointed homes of the sugar and cotton plantations where Northup is forced to work, but all the while exposing the physical and psychological torture that made such beauty possible. What’s more, the film captures the psycho-cultural nuances of the relationships that our “peculiar institution” so deeply distorted, especially the lengths to which white slave owners had to disassociate from their own humanity in order to dehumanize others.

Of course, “12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first feature film to de-romanticize slavery. Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” and even Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” with varying degrees of success, used their own vernaculars to tell particular truths about slavery.

“Django Unchained” was even nominated for best picture last year, despite the fact that it ultimately succumbed to Tarantino’s own fatal self-indulgence and pulp narcissism. But McQueen stays the distance, exemplifying cinematic art at its most sensitive and sophisticated, and beginning to undo decades of conscious and unconscious mythmaking. If “12 Years a Slave” shows us anything, it’s that history is mutable, always open to rigorous, honest reassessment. The same goes for Hollywood’s own history. If the oddsmakers are correct and “12 Years a Slave” manages to take the big prize on Sunday, its victory will be deserved on artistic merit alone. But it may also mark the night Hollywood began to live Old Dixie down.

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by Ann Hornaday

The question of what makes a best picture the best picture is a perennial stumper at Oscar time, which is when even the most casual movie fans are known to become re-traumatized remembering the 1977 ceremony, at which “Rocky” beat out “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network,” or 1999, when “Shakespeare in Love” took the honor over Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan.”

Sunday’s ceremony is unlikely to result in outrage. Put simply, last year’s movies and this year’s crop of best picture nominees were of such exceptional quality that it’s possible to accept almost all of them as the finest of 2013, depending on your criteria.

Gravity,” a breathtaking technical and commercial achievement, has invested new energy and vision into the simple genre popcorn movie (and made a ton of money to boot). The infectiously exuberant caper “American Hustle” — along with “Gravity,” a presumed front-runner in the best picture race — possesses the kind of liberated joie de vivre that sent audiences out of the theater with big smiles on their faces — staking a claim for sheer entertainment value that academy members are within their rights to encourage. Even if “Her” or “Nebraska” “Captain Phillips” were to sneak up from behind to play spoiler, each would do so as an exquisite portrait of our times, when technology, economic collapse and globalism have left so many people isolated and dispossessed.

Still, even in the face of such eminently worthy competition, “12 Years a Slave” deserves to win — as great art, cultural bellwether and historic statement.

There’s no question that “12 Years a Slave,” British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a 19th-century autobiographical narrative by Solomon Northup, is a staggering artistic achievement. Working with a script by John Ridley, McQueen smoothly threads viewers through Northup’s journey from the freedom he was born into in Upstate New York to being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he spends several arduous years trying to escape. Eliciting searing, expressive performances from actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, McQueen tells the story simply, following Northup’s harrowing chronicle with enough discretion to avoid being exploitative, but with enough intimacy that viewers are immediately invested in Northup’s plight, as well as his excruciating, hard-won catharsis.

In many ways, that kind of emotional impact defines what academy voters are looking for in a best picture — not a feel-good movie as much as a feel- deeply movie. What’s more, recognition of “12 Years a Slave’s” achievement would provide fitting recognition of 2013 as an exceptional year for African American films, filmmakers and stories — a year that included such mainstream hits as “42,” “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ ” and “The Best Man Holiday,” the astonishing debut of “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler and the stylistic range represented by indies like “Mother of George,” “Newlyweeds” and “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.”

No one would argue that “12 Years a Slave” should win as a symbol of Black Film (whatever that means anymore). It deserves to win if only because it advances cinematic language in ways that feel daring and new. McQueen, who before making feature films created installations in museums and galleries, approaches his work with thoughtful, even elegant formalism, in the case of “12 Years a Slave” with long, quiet takes during which the audience is invited simply to observe the characters and their environment; he’s not one for flashy editing or facile ma­nipu­la­tion. At once lush and austere, his aesthetic is always highly disciplined, each shot carefully staged, selected and juxtaposed with another to create a level of sensory communication altogether separate from but complimentary to the explicit plot. Like “Gravity,” McQueen’s film has also created its own singular grammar, merging the straightforward storytelling of classical film narrative with bold, almost abstract, experimentation to create a “third space” between past and present.

In one of the film’s most wrenching sequences, Northup is hanged as a punishment, his toes barely touching the muddy ground while he fights for his life; gradually, we see life on the plantation go on behind him, a wordless tableau that forces the audience to confront and sit with brutality that was so common at the time as to be not worth an idle glance.

Later, when Northup realizes he might have a possibility of getting a letter out to his family in New York, McQueen pauses, resting the camera on Ejiofor’s face, his expression one of fear, cautious hope and determination not to succumb to heartbreaking self-deception. Juxtaposing the historical images of “12 Years a Slave” with a haunting electronic score by Hans Zimmer, McQueen doesn’t just content himself with telling the story; he creates, with sound and image, a whole other layer of sensory experience, as potent and expressive as Ejiofor and his cast-mates are in their commitment to realism.

That realism plays an important role that extends beyond Northup’s compelling story and into Hollywood’s history itself. In explicit and subtle ways, “12 Years a Slave” does its part to dismantle — or at least puncture — a century of toxic misrepresentations of the slavery-era South that, drenched in moonlight, magnolias and various degrees of revisionism, have helped distort a racial history that America still finds challenging to process. From the depraved freed slaves of “The Birth of a Nation” to the infantilized mammies and house servants of 1940 best picture winner “Gone With the Wind,” Hollywood has helped perpetuate some of the most toxic lies about Old Dixie as a world of romance, gentility and benign white privilege.

McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” offers an elegant retort, inviting viewers to luxuriate in the verdant lushness and well-appointed homes of the sugar and cotton plantations where Northup is forced to work, but all the while exposing the physical and psychological torture that made such beauty possible. What’s more, the film captures the psycho-cultural nuances of the relationships that our “peculiar institution” so deeply distorted, especially the lengths to which white slave owners had to disassociate from their own humanity in order to dehumanize others.

Of course, “12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first feature film to de-romanticize slavery. Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” and even Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” with varying degrees of success, used their own vernaculars to tell particular truths about slavery.

“Django Unchained” was even nominated for best picture last year, despite the fact that it ultimately succumbed to Tarantino’s own fatal self-indulgence and pulp narcissism. But McQueen stays the distance, exemplifying cinematic art at its most sensitive and sophisticated, and beginning to undo decades of conscious and unconscious mythmaking. If “12 Years a Slave” shows us anything, it’s that history is mutable, always open to rigorous, honest reassessment. The same goes for Hollywood’s own history. If the oddsmakers are correct and “12 Years a Slave” manages to take the big prize on Sunday, its victory will be deserved on artistic merit alone. But it may also mark the night Hollywood began to live Old Dixie down.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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