Oscar-Nominated Dramas Confound Hollywood’s Liberation-Story Formulas

This season's stories portray tangled power relationships without cathartic retribution.

Oscar Screenplay Nominees: Dramas Confound Liberation-Story

Oscar voters have traditionally loved liberation stories, uplifting tales of the oppressed throwing off their shackles.

In this season’s contending scripts, though, the power relationships are more tangled and the stories lack such cathartic retribution.

Edwin Epps in “12 Years a Slave” and the nuns who sell Philomena Lee’s son in “Philomena” are villainous enough, but those pics’ heroes don’t rise up. And “Captain Phillips,” which features underdogs lashing out, if not exactly rising up, makes the underdog Somalis its bad guys, and dares invites First World auds to see ourselves in them — and to wonder how much we are, in fact, oppressors.

If we are, the implications are profound, for as “12 Years a Slave” shows, having power over others is toxic for all involved. “There was a mass psychosis going on at that time,” says scripter John Ridley of the antebellum South, “Once you start this decay of human nature, it affects everyone. It affects the whole of society.”

This madness takes its toll on protagonist Solomon Northup; by the time he regains his freedom, he’s permanently adopted a submissive stoop. Though determined to “keep myself hearty until freedom is opportune,” he eventually turns to faith to survive the ordeal, when he joins other slaves in singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”

In “Philomena,” young Philomena Lee’s life in the convent as an unwed mother meets some definitions of slavery. But she goes on to have a decent life, and her life is far from Northup’s.

Philomena didn’t truly get free, though, simply by leaving the convent. “The liberation for her is in unburdening herself of this secret,” says Steve Coogan, the writer-director who also plays journalist Martin Sixsmith, who comes to share her secret. “Her incarceration was having to hold a secret, so she was still, in a way, a prisoner of those beliefs for most of her life.”

Philomena also takes a step that Solomon never needs to do: She forgives her oppressors. “Philomena still sees in (her) faith something which enriches her life, despite those who corrupt the true values of that faith,” says Jeff Pope, who shares credit with Coogan. “She’s not an armchair Christian.”

Spirituality is less present in “Captain Phillips,” where money drives the conflict. But for screenwriter Billy Ray, “the whole movie is about power relationships,” centering on the two captains, Phillips and Muse, and the way they test each other’s leadership.

All that plays out against the power imbalance between winners of the global economy and those left behind by globalization.

“It was so important to (Paul Greengrass) to paint an accurate picture of what the world looked like in Somalia,” Ray says. “Because he knew that at some point the movie was going to be a story about three gigantic Naval destroyers in the water pursuing this tiny little lifeboat.” If the Somalis weren’t fleshed-out characters, that would be ridiculous.

He also sees the picture as a metaphor for how power turned upside down after 9/11.

“We’re the biggest, we’re the most powerful, but one scrawny terrorist can wreak untold havoc on us, and we know it. Here are these four little pirates, who between them barely weigh 400 pounds, and they get control of this enormous vessel of modern capitalism.

“For me that’s an exact metaphor for the fears we all live under now.”