12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s latest directorial offering is a far cry from his work on Shame and Hunger. 12 Years a Slave deals with the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was sold into slavery. It follows him on his battle for freedom through the trials and tribulations which slavery brought, just not to him, but to everyone who suffered with him. The film is a touching tribute to Solomon’s memoirs, which gave McQueen the inspiration to create the film. With a cast of upcoming actors like Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejifor, along with the more established names like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave is a film which deserves Oscar success not just for Best Picture, but for its actors. With heart-wrenching moments, 12 Years a Slave is a film which the Academy simply cannot ignore. McQueen does not tiptoe around the issue in question. He allows the camera to linger on the unforgettably harrowing images of pain. With the history of slavery at the forefront of this film, 12 Years a Slave should walk away with the Best Picture prize due to its historical context and inspired vision.
After winning the Best Picture award at the BAFTAs, it seems rather likely that 12 Years a Slave could walk away with the American equivalent this Sunday, although it faces stiff competition from other notable and great films like Gravity and American Hustle. However, the reason as to why 12 Years a Slave should win is due to the vision of Steve McQueen to bring slavery back to people’s attention, but without sugar-coating everything which happened for them. Without McQueen and his host of astounding actors, 12 Years a Slave would not be the film which is hailed by critics worldwide. The film deserves every Oscar success which comes its way.
If there’s a common theme to this year’s nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award, it’s the sensation of being adrift. Whether they’re sold into slavery or adrift in space, the protagonists of this year’s films know what it’s like to be torn away from everything they defined themselves by. Nebraska is an underdog in the Best Picture category, expected to lose to unique and attention-grabbing films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Perhaps it seems unremarkable because it is about being adrift in a situation which every one of us will face, if we live long enough – the physical and mental decay of the end of your life.
The film’s protagonist, Woodrow ‘Woody’ Grant (Bruce Dern), is an alcoholic former garage-owner in the early stages of dementia who gets a flier telling him he’s won a million dollars, and is convinced he can claim his winnings at the company’s Nebraska headquarters. His son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to take him. At first their journey is fraught with bickering, but once they reach Woody’s hometown and meet his family, David begins to understand his family a bit better.
Perhaps another reason Nebraska’s been overlooked is because its setting in recession-ridden small-town America is resolutely unglamorous, but it uses it as a setting for painful emotional truths. It’s often blackly funny, yet until the very end, it refuses to allow any hope into a story as bleakly beautiful as its black-and-white photography. The characters, played with great subtlety by the magnificent cast, are messily complex and often unlikeable, winding towards the grave with nothing but a resolutely average life to show for it – the film’s most breathtaking scene is set in a graveyard, where Woody’s vinegary wife Kate (June Squibb) dismissively gives her sons the potted history of all the family members buried under a row of identical graves – “I liked Rose, but my God, she was a slut”. The exploration of the secret resentments the Grant family hold for each other is very moving, especially in the scene where David, who is a teetotaller to avoid turning out like his Dad, angrily insists they drink together.
Nebraska deserves the Best Picture Oscar because it’s a triumph of art in making us take a second look at the ordinary. It explores its themes of family and mortality with heartbreaking honesty, painting on a small canvas in exquisite shades of grey.