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Is 12 Years a Slave Really a Best Picture Lock?

Race and the rush to call the 2013 Oscars

Until last week, I was very excited about returning to Grantland as your Oscar-season correspondent after a year off, and looking forward to examining the Academy Awards race from every angle for the next six months. But then I went on the Internet looking for coverage of the Toronto Film Festival, and found out that I’m too late — the race is over. “I’ve just seen what will surely be this year’s Best Picture winner, and it’s 12 Years a Slave,” wrote one of my amiable colleagues, Vulture’s Oscar guy Kyle Buchanan. Inexplicably worried that that sentence might make him sound like some kind of fence-sitting wuss, he added, “the fact that there’s still any room for debate at all means that Oscar bloggers were high.”

Well … damn it! I thought we had several months to see all of the actual movies, but apparently that’s just fuzzyheadedness caused by residual THC. Buchanan’s strong sentiments were echoed in only slightly less stentorian fashion by much of the rest of the Oscarati, leading the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard to report that “the notion that 12 Years a Slave won’t win the best picture Oscar seems absurd to those who’ve seen it.”

It’s no longer news that fall film festivals in Toronto, Venice, and Telluride function in part as awards-season launching pads; the practice is largely sanctioned and financed by the distributors who provide hot-ticket movies, and tacitly encouraged by the festivals themselves. However, even aside from the disservice to the movie, an early line-in-the-sand awards declaration can sometimes lead to months of defensive posturing (“Well, the Scorsese is good, but I hold to my earlier contention that … “). It also runs the risk of turning handicappers into advocates not just for their own favorite movies but for their own early calls. The recent compulsion to anoint a Best Picture favorite around Labor Day, a full 17 weeks before the end of the eligibility period for movies, represents the convergence of several factors: A shorter pre-nomination Oscar calendar, a recent run of winners the intense hype for which started at Toronto and Telluride (Argo launched at both), and an infection of festival coverage by web-driven “First!” culture. In Oscar talk as in all things, Twitter in particular rewards the quick, the loud, and the unequivocal, and the sight of men (and it’s mostly men) racing to turn on their phones, thumbs a-twitching, after the end of a press screening almost always signals an impending stampede toward overstatement.

But it’s worth asking why — aside from its reported excellence — 12 Years a Slave rather than some other movie is the beneficiary of this year’s hasty coronation. The answer may not be that buzz moves quickly, but that Hollywood moves slowly. The thirst to wrap up 2013′s Academy Awards narrative before it has even started with a film that tears into the history of slavery in America may represent, at long last, the Obama Effect rippling all the way to the Dolby Theatre. And I don’t mean the effect of his reelection. I mean Obama 2008. Fruitvale Station Movies take a long time — what often seems an insanely long time — to make. We like to imagine that the films to which we respond most passionately are those that illuminate our moment, but when they do, it’s usually by luck or by prescience. What “timely” movies actually reflect is the passion for a subject that a writer, director, or producer had two to five years earlier, which is about what it takes for a serious, Oscar-friendly film to evolve from conception to release. (Last year’s two most nominated pictures, Lincoln1 and Life of Pi, each took a decade.) It has been five and a half years since then-senator Obama, in the middle of his 2008 primary fight, called for a “national conversation about race” in one of his first widely seen speeches. But when he brought up the idea, most people didn’t know where to begin.

That included people in Hollywood, which generally treats history with triumphalism, race with trepidation, and African American moviegoers as a niche that Tyler Perry will continue to take care of. So it’s remarkable that the industry managed to respond at all. In terms of the Oscars, the cinematic version of the national conversation began a year later, in the fall of 2009, with the unexpected mainstream success of Precious (to which the Weinstein Company Lionsgate affixed the names of Perry and of Oprah Winfrey as if they were lucky charms, which in many ways they were). In 2010, DreamWorks bought the rights to the surprise best seller The Help and put it on the fast track to production; one summer later, the movie became a crossover smash. Last year brought the Sundance breakthrough Beasts of the Southern Wild as well as Hollywood’s first two major treatments of the Civil War era and the subject of slavery in many years, Lincoln and Django Unchained, which ended 2012 with commentators attempting to nudge them into unlikely historical dialogue with one another.

All five of those movies outperformed expectations at the box office, and all five received Best Picture nominations. None of them won the big prize, but cumulatively, they have created a sense that perhaps the Oscars are building to something — and maybe what they’re building to is this moment.

This spring saw the success of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42; the biggest success out of January’s Sundance Film Festival has been the young writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the only movie of 2013 to have topped the box office for three consecutive weeks. Let’s pause to acknowledge, for a moment, that rather remarkable run of eight successful movies in 24 months. Yes, some of the films are deeply flawed, but all of them are at least worth arguing over, and for an industry so averse to touching anything real that it has recently ceded niches like “adult” and “serious” and “complicated” to cable television, this sustained big-screen attempt to examine a painful subject from multiple angles is without recent precedent. And now comes 12 Years a Slave, which opens October 18 and was, according to The Hollywood Reporter, greeted with “shock and awe” upon its world premiere in Telluride.

I’ve written before about the importance of awards-season narratives in the Oscar contest — fairy tales to which the perfect ending is the bestowal of a statuette. This year, the narrative about race has gotten very loud, very early. It’s a story line with a heavy dose of “The time has come” (to quote Barbra Streisand when she presented the award for Best Director to Kathryn Bigelow). A win for 12 Years a Slave, which was directed by a black Englishman and written by an African American, would not only make Oscar history but also satisfy a longstanding Academy tradition; handing it the top prize would be somewhat akin to belatedly recognizing an actress who has come close several times in the last few years only to be denied. In addition, after repeatedly rewarding light, quasi-inspirational fare from abroad like Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and The Artist, a Best Picture win might amount to an assertion that Academy voters can occasionally bestir themselves to honor material that is tough, unflinching, and intrinsically American in its content (the Academy is almost always looking to correct for something it vaguely senses it has recently done wrong).

12 Years a Slave also connects deeply to Academy history in other ways. Like Best Picture winners ranging from 1947′s Gentleman’s Agreement to 1967′s In the Heat of the Night to 1993′s Schindler’s List, the movie chooses to explore a moral evil by casting an outsider into its midst — in this case Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn black man in the North who was kidnapped and then enslaved and then, well, no spoilers, but, you know, keep your eye on what goes down in year 13! An Academy Award for 12 Years would be something new, but it would also serve as a culmination of sorts, and man, do Oscar voters ever love culminating.

Django

This might be a good time to mention a few things: (1) It’s September, for God’s sake. (2) I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave. (3) You haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave. (4) Oscar observers are not the same as critics, the paying public, or Academy members, all of whose verdicts will be more important to the fate of the movie than the thoughts of anybody who’s talking about it today, and as of this writing, most of the people who will matter the most cannot spell Chiwetel Ejiofor without Google. (5) This whole discussion has not really been about the content or quality of 12 Years a Slave at all (when it opens, we can have a real conversation). All of which is to say that one should take shouty pronunciamentos delivered in a sweaty swivet after an emotional screening with a big grain of salt. (I made one once, about Antwone Fisher. I’m still living it down.) It’s a long road to the Oscars, and even if 12 Years a Slave ends up crossing the finish line first, no movie makes it from September to February without hitting some speed bumps — other movies, backlash, op-ed page harrumphing, hype fatigue.

As deserving a winner (if it wins) as 12 Years a Slave may end up being, excessive or premature advocacy for this particular happy ending should discomfort us all. Deciding to give a movie an Academy Award as a way of “taking care of” something can be a way of exonerating yourself from thinking about whatever actual issues you imagine you’re taking care of. (As Oscar host Jon Stewart famously said in 2006 after a montage of earnest scenes from Hollywood social-relevance dramas, ” … and none of those things were ever problems again.”) Beware the perfume of self-congratulation that wafts through this particular awards narrative, and beware any narrative that sells a movie as an excellent symbolic choice while papering over its specific merits, quirks, and idiosyncrasies.

There are people who believe 12 Years a Slave is the movie that should win Best Picture (I’d argue that that’s an absurd thought until we’ve seen the whole field, but enthusiasm is enthusiasm). However, as the season progresses, there will also be people who think 12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that should win Best Picture. Watch out for them; they are up to no good; they will be the same people who think that 12 Years gives them permission not to think too much about Fruitvale Station or The Butler. Both of those movies are attempting to travel different, well-established roads to nominations — Fruitvale Station is trying to follow Beasts of the Southern Wild as this year’s artisanal Sundance sensation, and The Butler, as fascinatingly jagged and oddball as it is, also works on enough traditional levels to walk an honorable old Oscar campaign path labeled The Movie Your Parents Like More Than You Do. The problem with settling too soon on a “year of the black movie” Oscar narrative is that it erodes distinctions within a set of films whose power lies in how unique each one is; it’s a diminishment disguised as a celebration. Proceed with caution.