‘12 Years A Slave’ could be a game-changer at these Academy Awards.
Should we do the “black” thing? The “right” thing? This year, the Oscar’s Best Picture race has been veering steadily towards a film that does nothing new but will most likely hit the top target if the Academy brings in affirmative action of its own. The film, 12 Years A Slave, is exactly what the title suggests: the experience of a sold-into-slavery human being, who is humiliated and tortured for those 12 long years, being forced to live as chattel, even when he is born free.
It may be travelled territory, but what Steve McQueen’s film represents is worthy of being awarded. It is based on a book which tells the moving story of Solomon Northup, played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, up for Best Actor. Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the part of a female slave and is shortlisted for Best Supporting Actress, is a heartbreaker. The film has heaved the issue of slavery into the mainstream cauldron — the safe place where white women and men rule, and the one ring that binds them is in the hands of predominantly middle-aged white men, the people who vote for the Academy Awards.
If it wins Best Picture, it will, despite all the cynicism that is floating around, be a game-changer. McQueen will be the first black director with a Best Picture win. And if Ejiofor and Nyong’o get their hands on the trophies, it will be the biggest photo-op in the history of the Oscars. It will also be the next level in the slow stutter of acceptance of people of colour in an industry which, like all mainstream film industries around the globe, is petrified of rocking the boat. Because black, you know, doesn’t sell.
The biggest acting bets are not on either of the 12 Years A Slave leads, but even if it takes away Best Picture, it will be more than just tokenism. It will be the film that broke the mould, and it will tilt the balance a little more towards racial diversity in a nation that has talked so much about it, but has had such difficulty in putting blacks, browns and other “un-American” hues at the heart of its entertainment industries.
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The film that is giving 12 Years A Slave the toughest fight takes place hundreds of miles away from planet Earth. Gravity flings Sandra Bullock and George Clooney into outer space, and makes us float with them as they spiral about, trying to find their way back home. Alfonso Cuaron, the man who directed this jaw-droppingly immersive experience, is tipped to take the Best Director trophy home. If he does, then it will be one more time that the two top awards are split between two films, leaving us to wonder how it is that Best Picture and Best Director do not belong together.
The Best Actress award is going to Cate Blanchett. I stuck my neck out on this one months back, when I saw Woody Allen’s wonderful Blue Jasmine, in which the director is back doing what he does best: presenting men and women at their most vulnerable, and making us like them for being not very likeable at all. Blanchett, as the woman unravelling at warp speed, is superb. I’m also rooting for Sally Hawkins, who plays Blanchett’s supportive sister, for Best Supporting Actress. Which will most likely go to Jennifer Lawrence for her clingy 70s wifey part in the unremarkable American Hustle, sigh. The film has, remarkably, been nominated in every single major category. It’s fun, has some good acting parts, but it isn’t about much at all.
Just to be contrary, I’d say neither worthy, old-timey slave sagas, nor futuristic space tales should take away our attention from the bleak-but-beautiful, shot in black-and-white Nebraska, in which nothing happens and everything happens, at a pace that ambles along just like its main lead. Bruce Dern, up for Best Actor, plays an old man getting older even as we watch him on the road with his son. The end result for him, we know, will be a disappointment: the lottery that he thinks he has won is a chimera. But not this riveting road movie, director Alexander Payne’s favourite genre. It’s a surprise that it even got his far, given that the Academy is not known to give top prizes to small, spare films which tell big truths.
One of the most viscerally entertaining films of last year, The Wolf Of Wall Street, has nominations for Martin Scorsese (Best Director), Leonardo DiCaprio (Best Actor) and Best Picture. It split audiences down the middle: one section hated it for its over-the-top celebration of the hedonism and self-pleasuring of the wolves of Wall Street, another applauded it for its terrific recreation of a time and place, and for Scorsese’s continued masterful story-telling.
I’m betting it will win nothing significant. Because we need to know that the bloody weals on the back of a slave are safely interred in the past. That this here, now, is free. And because winners can’t be sinners. They need to be worthy. So do we.