Why ’12 Years a Slave’ Renders Oscar Speculation Trivial & Repulsive

12 Years a SlaveThe fall festival season and “Oscar season” have gone so hand-in-hand lately as to dilute the merits of both periods. Technically awards season does really get her until January, when the BFCA, Golden Globes, SAG, GTFO, whatever awards start dropping within proximity of one another, rarely even giving each other a proper chance to breath. No wonder I’m so estranged from Oscar, its tediously political stream of polite adulation never allowing for proper conversation on the films themselves. That is what the fall festival season exists for, allowing us the chance to dwell on the films themselves and our relationships to them. Bringing out Oscar into the conversation only serves to diffuse the intimate back-and-forth we’re already having with these films.

And yet every year sees films landing at Venice, Telluride and Toronto that instantaneously can only be broken down in reference to what awards they have the best shot at. “Argo could go all the way to the finish, unless Silver Linings Playbook pulls a surprise sweep of audiences.” “What does The Artist losing the Toronto Audience Award mean for its Oscar chances?” “It’s gonna be a neck-and-neck race between The King’s Speech and The Social Network. Just you wait and see!” And again here we are with the conversation reshaped around 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and very soon Captain Phillips and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The business of awards season narratives, nicely dissected by Katey Rich at Cinemablend, drones on and drowns out the questions we ought to be asking about what the film’s intention is towards us, not the voters, an abstract body of faceless agents that, however individual, end up forming one conglomerated opinion.

So it already frustrated me on principle that the man introducing 12 Years a Slave at a Telluride by the Sea screening in Portsmouth, NH, just a half hour’s drive from where I grew up, went out of his way to remind us that it’s “the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar”. First off, way to set up impossible expectations in the most arbitrary manner imaginable, a routine several critics have gone through out of Toronto. As an Oscar prognosticator I have to note it’s the kiss of death to be deemed the frontrunner as early as September. There’s still plenty road ahead for the film to be knocked off that pedestal, or perhaps even worse, become the tedious winner of all the awards to the point that people express frustrated boredom from it. In the past, however, I’ve reluctantly taken all this media scuffle in stride as a requisite of the film business.

12 Years a SlaveAnd then, gradually over the next 133 minutes, 12 Years a Slave broke the bronzed back of any Oscar discussions. I won’t be filing my review of the film till its New York Film Festival premiere, for fear of provoking audience interest too far before the film’s October 18th release. It still immediately deserves pronouncement as one of the most significant films made in recent film history at least, if not of all time. Much as an emphatic audience member might say you need to see such-and-such inspiring or inflammatory documentary, 12 Years a Slave is a film that truly *NEEDS* to be seen by everyone in existence. I might go so far as calling it morally ignorant, possibly even repugnant, not to see it.

Without continually assaulting the film with hyperbole – as if this article hasn’t already done that – or offering nothing to dwell on, the film takes one of the cruelest domestic systems in history and gives it the kind of obvious treatment it deserves, but without that obviousness instantly translating into saccharine, weepy-eyed mush. It puts alleged civil rights films like 42, The Help, The Butler, etc. to absolute shame, not shying away from the simplest of injustices because it might be hard for viewers. That’s about as specific as I can get about it at this time, my mind and heart still railing with the chaotic fury of emotions the film provokes.

What’s most significant to discuss at this juncture is the audience that is seeing and discussing these films. Well before the film wrapped, it occurred to me with equal clarity and disgust that I was surrounded by and a part of an audience that was predominantly white. Such is often the case when you’re in northern New England, but it sickened me still that films about slavery or black struggles have historically existed to make white audiences feel better about how gracious they are in comparison to the cartoonish white villains depicted in them. For a film whose meaning and resonance exists on an entirely different plane from the personal sphere of our own content, accessing it in such a way as to distance yourself from the atrocities shown is reciprocating the evil of social ignorance the film depicts.

12 Years a SlaveIn an easier world, 12 Years a Slave would not be in the Oscar race, relinquishing us of the drive to trivialize a work of unflinching historical testimony through an inevitably politicized awards season. An easier world, a safer world, but possibly not a better world and definitely not the world we live in. To expect a film to instantly reshape the cultural way of thinking is admittedly another kind of hyperbole being added to the film, and if any film deserves to be praised less by vague words as “great” and “masterpiece” and more by continuing conversation, it’s this.

Does it live up the hype? That’s a question we’ll clearly never stop hearing asked of films, blowing significant and insignificant film alike out of proportion. Can it maintain interest until the Oscars? To that question, I have a legitimate answer. 12 Years a Slave will outlive whatever Oscar speculation and interest it engenders, inspiring more palpable activism and cultural change than its trivial “Oscar movie” representations suggest. Bringing the Academy Awards immediately into the discussion is offensive when the film’s meaning stretches so far and obviously beyond material intent. Our best counteraction to such hyperbole, from here on out, is to consider the film, not the fawning praise it engenders. Provided, that is, people actually see it. There is no reasonable excuse not to.

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  • At the Twin Cities Film Festival, the programmer introduces every film as an “Oscar frontrunner” or says something like “this film has been getting serious Oscar buzz.” Last year he said “The Sessions” was the film to beat in every major Oscar category. It’s just what they say to stir excitement in and audience that has been trained (not wrongly) to relate Oscar nominations to film popularity. Most people I know, even those who don’t see many movies, know that an Oscar win doesn’t mean that it is objectively the best film, but they do know that seeing an Oscar contender months before your friends makes you aware of something that is soon going to be very popular and widely talked about. It feeds into our society’s obsession (especially among neo-consumers) to be the first to discover something.

    So when somebody declares something an “Oscar frontrunner” well before Oscar nominations, they are not saying “that makes this automatically good.” They are saying “this will probably be the movie everybody is talking about in a couple of months and you get to join me by being FIRST.”

    • Duncan Houst

      It’s definitely a common tactic of gearing an audience towards excitement, and I might’ve let that slide if the film itself didn’t entirely strike out against that tone of proprietorship. Being FIRST really means nothing when a film isn’t focusing on an intimate, niche subject. Early screenings of films like “Frances Ha” certainly built a feeling of intimacy, as if the film was made for me.

      “12 Years a Slave” is not pointed explicitly towards any one kind of person. Its humanity is of such an obvious, truly universal nature that any act of ownership feels like a crude continuation of the film’s cardinal sin. And it’s a film that gets me monologuing to an embarrassingly prophetic degree, so clearly the ordinary rules of systematic hype must be chastised to some extent.

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