Film fans have a very love-hate relationship with the Oscars. We love them, or at least put up with them, because they are a means of getting the general public to see more adventurous, unusual or sometimes challenging films, and they form the perfect icebreaker for film-related conversation. Likewise, we hate the Oscars for being a bad advert for the film industry, being out of touch, smugly self-satisfied, and usually getting it very, very wrong.
In this manner, Oscar buzz has to be handled the same way every year: acknowledged, but taken with a pinch of salt, in the knowledge that the best picture probably won't win Best Picture. This year, however, is different, because for once the Academy got it right. 12 Years a Slave is a truly transcendent piece of film-making which cements Steve McQueen's burgeoning reputation, and is perhaps the most deserved Best Picture win for a decade.
In the past, films which have explored the subject of American slavery have tended to be from the white man's point of view. Films like Amistad, Lincoln and Amazing Grace have noble intentions and often a lot of talent behind them, but they tend to view slavery as an issue that noble-minded, morally-upright white men must resolve, in opposition to less noble-minded, morally-upright white men. In doing so the people whose cause they claim to be championing are unduly and often unintentionally marginalised.
McQueen's film, by contrast, is told very much from from the slaves' point-of-view. It's very easy to put this down to his status as a Hollywood outsider: being a British director who started out as a visual artist, one could argue that he brings an objectivity to the subject that no American filmmaker could have done. As compelling as this argument may seem, however it does ignore both the transatlantic nature of the production and McQueen's own ancestry, which includes many victims of slavery.
More important than McQueen's background or status is his sensibility, which is key to the film's success. He has a recurring interest in dehumanisation or the abuse and degradation of the human body. Having handled starvation in Hunger, and sex addiction and attempted suicide in Shame, he now gives us the commodification of human beings into property, and the physical abuse given to slaves in the form of lashes, attempted hanging and rape. The film is deeply emotional but also disturbingly clinical, a very rare trick to have pulled off.
McQueen establishes this approach with the opening shots: a cold open on a sugar cane plantation in media res, and then a sex scene between two slaves which is the very definition of unsexy. We see our two participants in close-up, moving slowly against each other but with not a shred of joy or love on their faces. In doing this, McQueen shows how slavery strips people of their humanity, to the point where even the most sacred and joyous of acts have become empty and devoid of meaning. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of Mulholland Drive, sex has become the act of those who are hollow, desperate and defeated.
Much of 12 Years a Slave looks at the means by which people become institutionalised into slavery. The film goes to great lengths to show how hard it is to escape being a slave, with Solomon Northup being robbed of his identity and becoming little more than a portion of labour that can be bought, sold and mistreated at will. Much of the film is concerned with the brutality inflicted upon the slaves by their masters, and as in his previous work McQueen never pulls any punches.
Even by the standards of a generation raised on so-called 'torture porn', 12 Years a Slave is an incredibly brutal film. It's arguably the most violent mainstream film since The Passion of the Christ, the difference being that the violence doesn't drown out the deeper message, as it does in Mel Gibson's work. The characters are so well-written and sensitively portrayed that every violent act perpetrated against them carries great weight and brings the appropriate response of repulsion. The scene where Patsey is repeatedly whipped is one of the most flinch-inducing moments in modern cinema.
Scenes like this reflect the film's nuanced understanding of how the power relationships between masters and slaves are structured. It acknowledges that hard power in the form of whippings and rape were not enough to guarantee obedience; slaves were also institutionalised by adopting the customs of their masters. By behaving like their captors, and being rewarded for their obedience, their desire to rebel and escape is steadily eroded, much like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.
This is played out in the film on at least three occasions. Firstly, we see Solomon play his violin at a dance for Mr. and Mrs. Epps: the joyful tunes he played as a free man are honed into the respectable, formal melodies of which they approve. Secondly, we see Shaw's plantations, where slaves are treated like country ladies, being plied with tea and cakes to make them accept their lot in life. And thirdly, in Patsey's whipping, where Epps invites Northup to beat his own kind, forcing him to embrace and appropriate the very form of violence that would be used against him.
The film is also very interested in the hypocrisy of religion. Christians were very prominent in the abolitionist movement later in the 19th century, and yet both Ebbs and the more moderate William Ford use scripture to justify their actions. Ford leads his slaves in services and prayers in his gardens, while Ebbs views an outbreak of cotton worm as a plague from God. Both men see slavery as their Biblically-sanctioned duty, something which in Ebbs' case extends to abusing them as well.
In lesser dramas, these characters would be painted in broad strokes as blind, deluded morons who should be ridiculed. But both McQueen's direction and John Ridley's fantastic screenplay constantly invite us to question things more deeply, and challenge our own beliefs in the process. Both Ford and Ebbs' behaviour are perversions of Christianity, neglecting Christ's teaching of compassion and forgiveness in favour of out-of-context Old Testament brutality. But we are still invited to view them as flawed men rather than dismiss them as madmen, no matter how easy that would seem.
12 Years a Slave is centrally a story of survival. It avoids falling into the trap that Schindler's List did, namely attempting to fashion a heroic story out of circumstances which didn't deserve it; in the words of Stanley Kubrick, "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure." Northup does very little that could be considered heroic: he doesn't liberate his fellow slaves or challenge the system to its core. He is very fortunate to survive, based upon the people he meets, and when he is swept off he is forced to leave Patsey behind.
On top of its thematic richness and brilliant storytelling, the film looks absolutely splendid Sean Bobbitt has collaborated with McQueen on both his previous films, as well as lending his eye to the underrated Byzantium. At times the plantations on which Northup works have a distinctly lyrical quality, reminiscent of the best work of Terence Malick. But as with Byzantium, there is plenty of room for harshness amongst the lavishness, and McQueen never lets the beautiful colours dominate proceedings or sanitise the violence.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave are very hard to fault. Chiwitel Ejiofor is amazing in the lead role, rivalling his performance in Dirty Pretty Things for its emotional depth and sensitivity. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o thoroughly deserved her Oscar; she makes Patsey a complex, wounded lady who never fails to break our hearts. Michael Fassbender continues his winning streak with McQueen, turning in another powerhouse performance as Ebbs, and there is good support from Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch, as John Tibeats and William Ford respectively.
12 Years A Slave is an utter masterpiece and a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It is a fantastic, mesmerising creation which is at turns a gruelling endurance test, a profound mental stimulant and a powerful emotional drama. McQueen's status as a great director of our time is assured, as is its status as an essential piece of filmmaking. It is, quite simply, astonishing, and a shoe-in for the best film of the year.