It was a big year for films based on true stories about racial relations in the United States.
In 2013, merely weeks into January, Michael B. Jordan played Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, the victim of a police-related shooting in the metro system of Oakland California in 2009. In April, a biopic about Jackie Robinson, 42, showed us a glimpse of what it was like for Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947. August belonged to Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines, a fictionalized look at a longtime African-American who was The Butler in the White House. And then came 12 Years A Slave, dramatizing the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, a freed man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
At one time or another, at least three of them had Oscar buzz, but 12 Years was the only one to garner any nominations. Best Picture. Actor. Supporting Actor. Supporting Actress. Costume Design. Directing. Film Editing. Production Design. Writing (Adapted Screenplay). In fact, Jackass: Bad Grandpa earned one more nomination than all of the other three (and one would’ve figured that The Butler’s broad array of actors and actresses, and the time-lapse covered, would’ve merited a look in that category, for makeup and hairstyling, at the very least.)
But Chiwetel Ejiofor and the crew of 12 Years are not second-guessed by anyone who has seen the film. The effort and skill put into the making of the film is obvious, as the cast, black and white, depict a struggle between good and evil, hope and despair, freedom and slavery. Ejiofor has the unblinking eye of the camera on him, intensely exposing the struggle of a man who knows freedom and knows what has taken from him, but he’s not alone: Lupita Nyong’o produces as a first-timer thrust into the role of objectified beauty and beaten/abused property.
On the other side of the whip, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt present different levels of the evil that white men both proactively did and passively allowed in the 1800s. Their willingness to play that evil is just as powerful, because we see the way that Northrup’s hope and presence made a difference because of the intensity of the evil he faces.
But is it Oscar worthy? Absolutely.
Not only is this a well-done, ridiculously moving movie from a historical perspective, but 12 Years A Slave demands that we look at our world and see who is struggling to gain real freedom in our world today. If we can cheer Liam Neeson in a movie like Taken about rescuing his fictional daughter, shouldn’t we get fired up about ending human trafficking? If we’re going to cheer fictional heroes, then a movie like 12 Years should remind us, through the character of Brad Pitt, that it’s not enough for us to be free while others suffer.
12 Years A Slave isn’t just entertaining (like some of its competitors); it is a singular story of what happens when injustice occurs and we must overcome. Until we change the course of history, it will remain a solid, well-done movie. But if those who see it will act, then it could be art that changes our world.
This is a piece I wrote for our ongoing Oscar coverage at HollywoodJesus.com. If you haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, I urge you to strongly consider- just know it’s not for the faint of heart. But it IS based on a true story which speaks to our history and the present, if we’re willing to listen, and to change.