12 Years A Slave will be a difficult film to tackle for no other reason than I’m a white person. I don’t pretend to “feel” the layered effects of slavery past any historical reference, nor do I take credit or blame for the misgivings of my white ancestors (technically I’m Jewish, so my family weren’t the Christian property holders) misgivings and horrific treatment of human life. That said, my whiteness does not preclude me from analyzing the plight of black people in the United States’ infancy and I will take shot at 12 Years A Slave (and Django Unchained). However, this review will be too brief to cover the history of slavery, just as the movie was; how slavery manifested in the US is a great opportunity to plug “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. Instead, this review will focus on the slippery slices of life that were Solomon Northrup’s and Django Freeman’s, how each film’s director decided to tell his story and how the Academy views films rooted in slavery.
Movies concerning slavery pack a larger punch when the film follows a character with purpose, depth, clarity, flaws and foil characteristics – like those that demonstrate the horrific slavery conditions. For example, Solomon Northrup, a free and learned northern man, spends the titular 12 years as a slave in the deep south after he’s literally stolen, stripped of everything and sold to the highest bidder. We, as an audience, care because we want him to find a way to earn his freedom back; we want to root for him to fight for dignity and uphold honor even within the most horrifying circumstances. We also know, through Director Steve McQueen’s clever exposition that he is a kind man – though too proud for practicality. Solomon’s perseverance mirrors our own desires to be free and nested in the overt and still prescient topic of slavery. As a companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained explores slavery through the surreal and hyperdramatization, in a similar fashion to McQueen’s gritty native truisms and blurred timeline. Our eponymous Django, given last name Freeman, earns freedom through a semi-realistic chain of events, until Tarantino eschews realism in favor of a Hamlet-esque ending, wherein everybody dies. Also connecting the two films are both directors’ fancy to make temporal jumps, smoothing out somewhat long periods of time over just two hours. It helps to mirror the reality of how long both men were enslaved as well as the absurd length of time the land of the free and home of the brave treated people like objects. Beyond the obvious connections of two men enslaved, what earned 12 Years A Slave a Best Picture win and Django Unchained a mere nomination?
It’s been the long running thesis for The Academy Nominees Project that Academy awards its Best Picture awards (coveted, largely irrelevant) based on its interpretation of the zeitgeist; how a film best represents a year’s mood, theme, gestalt, et cetera. The non-battle between 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained is no different. Both films represent a particular severed vein in American history – slavery – but the directors each took a particular angle to it and its effects. By making his long-awaited spaghetti western, Quentin Tarantino largely avoids the underlying horror of human trafficking, offering instead a tongue-in-cheek tale of adventure and redemption that’s nevertheless an effective diffuser of slave history. Steve McQueen, who has a history of handling difficult, off-centre topics (all, unsurprisingly having to do with a human condition, first – see Shame and Hunger) took a more humanist and minimalist approach to 12 Years A Slave; where Django aims to exploit, 12 Years succeeds in understating. In Django Unchained‘s 2009, with the world still reeling from Middle Eastern occupation, The Hurt Locker provided the much-needed(?) foil to highlight horrors of war, and although Django Unchained might survive longer as a must-watch film, but Academy lore will always remember The Hurt Locker, and subsequently the Middle East conflict.
The Hurt Locker‘s win paved a thoroughfare through the Academy for 12 Years A Slave to grab the top honor in 2013. Without Django‘s loss (or non-win, or whatever), there was no room for 12 Years A Slave to win Best Picture. Besides it being the best film of 2013, 12 Years A Slave also profoundly moved the conversation back to backhanded shame for over 250 years of slavery in the US and didn’t seem pushy. Rather, the eloquent win, backed up by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ scathing-cum-effective essay, “The Case For Reparations,” opened up the dialogue, again, for human rights’ campaigns and allowed the current iteration of white people to feel shame and guilt over treating people like property. Slavery is important, still, in its new (old) iteration as a class issue. The difference is this war is now colorless and odorless and instead depends on obfuscation of important ideas through a mountain of useless and distracting websites, whose main contributors claim endless information and almost no knowledge. 12 Years A Slave, as a piece of art and information, broke through the nonsense and represents, not the zeitgeist, but the antithesis of it, perhaps leading the Academy to award its top honor to what we want to remember, but not necessarily the true history. But to double up on “slavery?” No. It’s lucky for Django Unchained to have lost to pave the road for 12 Years A Slave.
As nominees have expanded to a cool nine from five, thus diluted the pool for “great” film. Surely not all nine films could be considered Best Picture? 2013 was a solid year, however, across film – from straightforward (Nebraska) to technocratic (Her) to dogmatic (The Wolf Of Wall Street) to “wow” (Gravity). Surprisingly, no two films offered the same pastiche and cancelled each other out. I’ve seen about half of these films (so far) and (so far) I’ll call 12 Years A Slave a deserving win, mostly because Django Unchained didn’t cancel it out four years earlier.