Why ‘12 Years a Slave’ Is the Most Satisfying Oscar Winner in Years

An unimpeachable choice for best picture, a diverse slate of winners and a refreshingly off-the-cuff host made this one of the more notable Oscarcasts in recent memory.

12 years a slave best picture

PETER DEBRUGE: All is right with the universe. Not sure I felt this way going in, but as it turns out, the Oscar race was all about race. As Ellen DeGeneres joked at the top of the telecast, “Possibility No. 1: ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists. And now please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway … ”

And yet, the evening proved to be incredibly diverse, both in its presenters and in its recipients. Of course, “12 Years” did go on to win, reflecting the Academy’s deep admiration for a film that tackles a subject the industry has been largely remiss in addressing. Though I hope its choices were indeed made from the heart, as opposed to on behalf of an actual agenda, such recognition is especially encouraging in light of the Los Angeles Times investigation that estimated the Academy’s 5,765 active voting members to be 94% white.

On the air, DeGeneres made a point of introducing Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the first African-American woman to head up the org, while kudocast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron presumably went out of their way to tap such Oscar dignitaries as Sidney Poitier, Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis, as well as two 2014 Razzie recipients — Tyler Perry and Will Smith — to present.

Though the choice of “12 Years” makes a clear statement, I believe voters responded to Cate Blanchett’s exceptional performance in “Blue Jasmine” without considering the implications — namely, that there is an audience for “female films with women at the center,” as Blanchett put it at the podium. And I read Alfonso Cuaron’s best director win, coming just one year after Ang Lee took the same prize, as a color-blind victory. If the Academy took any kind of stand with “Gravity,” it was in acknowledging that new virtual techniques in cinematography and editing warrant recognition.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: I’m not sure that the cinematography Oscar for “Gravity” acknowledges anything with regard to virtual filmmaking that the previous awards in that category for “Life of Pi” and “Avatar” didn’t — all of them controversial among some analog purists who claim that such films have erased the line between cinematography and visual effects. Then again, if people actually bother to investigate how all those films were made, which elements were captured physically on the set and which were created in the effects studio, and how the cinematographer and visual effects artists collaborated with each other, it’s actually quite clear that these are still two very distinct disciplines.

But we can certainly agree, Peter, that the best picture win for “12 Years a Slave,” something we both predicted early and often, is a very satisfying one indeed. That movie in many ways represents the Hollywood system working the way it can at its best and should more often. An A-list movie star used his industry clout to greenlight a modestly budgeted film ($20 million) on a difficult subject, recruited a maverick indie director who had never done a film of this size and scope, let him cast the right actors for the roles rather than loading them up with name stars (who likely would have distracted from the film’s verisimilitude, the way Pitt himself does a slight bit in his third-act cameo), and the result has been not just a formidable critical success but a commercial one too, $140 million worldwide and counting as of this writing. I wish I could say I think it will start a trend, but I’m not holding my breath.

But back to the ceremony itself. It was, to my mind, one of the best of recent vintage, with Ellen DeGeneres seeming calm and cool and wonderfully in control of the room, and no gaudy, embarrassing production numbers of the sort that plagued the Seth MacFarlane and Hugh Jackman years. Indeed, I’d have liked to see a bit more of Ellen, perhaps in a pre-produced film sequence of the sort Billy Crystal made famous in his hosting stints, or some man-on-the-street bits a la David Letterman and Chris Rock (the two most underrated of all Oscar hosts). Better that than those tiresome thematic montages of real and fictional movie superheroes — time-padding digressions that served mainly to let people at home know when they could take an extended food run or bathroom break.

JUSTIN CHANG: Given the unusually serious tenor of some of this year’s films, I can understand the Academy’s desire to impose some sort of unifying grand theme on the proceedings. But in this case, those hero montages culminated in a post-“In Memoriam” Bette Midler performance of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” that simply felt too calculated to resonate much — and, even worse, a self-glorifying acceptance speech from Matthew McConaughey that struck one of the few truly bum notes of the night. At every turn, the show benefited from Ellen’s efforts to puncture its pretensions and loosen the mood. OK, the pizza gag might have been a bit overextended, but I found the selfie bit completely disarming: Everyone who got in on the act, from Bradley Cooper to Meryl Streep to Peter Nyong’o, really did just seem happy to be there. (My own favorite unrehearsed moment of the night: Angelina Jolie opening the best-director envelope and waiting for Sidney Poitier to read Cuaron’s name before gently asking, “Do I get this one?”)

Hats off to both of you for calling this race accurately. When Peter and I were discussing last year’s Oscarcast, I noted rather grumpily that, if winners like “Argo” and “The King’s Speech” were any indication, the Academy might never again honor a film that truly challenges an audience. Rarely have I been happier to be proven wrong. It almost goes without saying that the triumph of “12 Years a Slave” is an incredibly meaningful one — racially, historically, politically and, not least of all, aesthetically: It’s important, I think, to emphasize what an eerie, brutally intimate piece of work this movie is, how thoughtfully it sidesteps the usual dramatic strategies for this sort of fare as it brings an unfathomable American tragedy into moral focus.

I can’t disagree with the general consensus that it was about time the industry produced — and honored — a worthy film on the subject of slavery (a fact driven home by a few tackier-than-necessary Fox Searchlight ads). But I find it hard to discuss Steve McQueen’s film strictly in terms of cultural progress, as many have done, without stripping it of its singularity. To do so is to overlook the very specific, personal, borderline-abstract qualities that make it award-worthy in the first place.

DEBRUGE: Agreed. Hollywood often uses the Oscars as a pulpit from which to weigh in on certain issues — as Blanchett did, with good cause, in her acceptance speech — and yet, I think at the individual voting level, Academy members follow their hearts. Had Sandra Bullock won that same prize, Blanchett’s statement would have been even more valid: Of all the barriers “Gravity” has broken, casting an actress in a role that wasn’t gender-dependent strikes me as the most significant. I applaud Blanchett for speaking truth to power: “As random and subjective as this award is, it means a great deal in a year of extraordinary performances by women.” Truth is, we critics try to project a collective meaning on the Academy’s choices, when their individual and somewhat arbitrary motives are so often written on the wind.

“12 Years” is a beguiling achievement, simultaneously beautiful and unbearable, and I believe that paradoxical power — perfectly captured in the shot where Solomon Northup rides away to freedom while Patsey collapses, a yellow blur in the background, her fate unrecorded by history — accounts for its win. Had the film lost, as DeGeneres’ joke hinted, we might have been inclined to accuse the Academy of racism, but I think the telecast, not the results, made race the focus last night. I’m fine with that. The industry needs to be reminded how many exceptional people of color they aren’t casting, and which stories aren’t being told. The world is well aware.

It’s too early to say whether other films will follow “12 Years’” lead in addressing the institution of slavery, but what thrills me — a year after no less a director than Quentin Tarantino attacked “The Man” with electrifying, exploitation-movie abandon — is that Steve McQueen had the guts to approach the subject with unflinching gravitas, that he carried off the task with such lucidity and power, and that the movie found an audience. Of all these victories, winning Oscars is perhaps the least significant.

FOUNDAS: What struck me most about Blanchett’s “random and subjective” comment was how much it seemed like a tiny but penetrating pinprick to the Academy’s grossly inflated hot-air balloon. We’ve just lived through five months or so of complete Oscar-themed mayhem, and even as we are writing this, I have no doubt that prognosticators are starting to lay out the odds for the 2015 season — a mindless game that involves ranking films that no one at this point has even seen. And while I’d never suggest that the Oscars aren’t important, they’re certainly not as important, and not important for the same reasons, as many inside and outside the Academy would like us to believe.

The Oscars are, first and foremost, a TV show with a huge global audience that accounts (as their annual financial report reveals) for about 70% of the Academy’s annual income. And it’s not only the Academy that comes out in the black: In the old days, it was said that winning a best picture Oscar could reliably add $15 million-$20 million to a movie’s theatrical take. Now, since almost all of the nominees and winners are already available on homevideo (with “12 Years a Slave” arriving this week), that Oscar “bump” comes in the form of Netflix queuing, Amazon downloads and, for that handful of us still wedded to hard media, DVD sales.

But a lot of individuals stand to gain from Oscar, too. Certainly, even a nomination is enough to elevate an actor to a new level in his or her career, while a win … well, I thought one of the most revealing moments of last night’s Oscar telecast came during a pretaped interview package that ran during the official ABC red-carpet preshow. Asked about his supporting actor win for “The Deer Hunter” in 1979, Christopher Walken recalled looking down at the Oscar in his hand and saying to his wife, “I think this is a house.” He then added that, indeed, the Oscar did do enough for his career to pay for the house he was sitting in at that very moment.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Heck, the ostensibly more pure and meritorious Nobel Prizes go so far as to cut their distinguished winners in the arts, sciences and humanitarian endeavors a check (to the tune of about $1 million) right on the spot. But by the end of any given Oscar season — and Oscar ceremony — we’ve been subjected to so much ballyhoo about movie “art” and “magic,” about the enormous “risks” the filmmakers in question took to bring their visions to the screen, about who wore what and who appeared where (or didn’t) in the death montage, it can be easy to forget that, at the end of the day, this is all about the money. And if anyone really doubts that, look no further than the critic David Thomson’s pithy recent recounting, in the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, of how the Academy came to exist in the first place — because Louis B. Mayer, a few decades before Christopher Walken, wanted to build a house.

CHANG: I’ll always treasure Blanchett’s acceptance speech, which was marvelously unguarded and heartfelt; she managed not only to pay classy tribute to her fellow actresses and their specific achievements, but also to put those achievements in meaningful perspective. The need for more women in cinema, on both sides of the camera, is a message we’re more accustomed to hearing from critics than from celebrities of Blanchett’s stature, and as Peter noted, it’s one of the key lessons we can take away from “Gravity” and any number of other B.O. hits — including “Frozen,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Heat,” “Philomena” and, yes, my beloved “The Conjuring” — that dare to treat 51% of the audience as more than an afterthought.

Looking over these films and others that did well on Sunday night, I’m reminded that, no matter how smooth or funny the host, how tacky the production numbers or how lofty the chosen theme, every Oscarcast is ultimately dependent on the caliber of the movies being saluted — and this year, I’d say the Academy got very, very lucky. Not only were the winners more than respectable, but they didn’t willfully fly in the face of the message: Not to keep flogging a dead horse, but you may recall the 2006 Oscarcast being pumped up with an awful lot of high-flown talk about Hollywood’s progressive liberal values — all of which felt, in retrospect, like a colossally empty joke with an appalling one-word punchline: “Crash!”

A worthy choice, by contrast, can actually make the inflated rhetoric feel tolerable, even persuasive. A wonder like “Gravity” really does warrant all that un-ironic talk of “movie magic,” just as a film like “12 Years a Slave” really can reawaken your belief in those moribund cliches about Hollywood heroism and artistic risk. (As for Lupita Nyong’o, her victory exists beyond the reach of cynicism; it was the sort of glorious moment no amount of money can buy.) Taken together, “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” project one hell of an industry self-image: powerful, serious-minded historical reckoning on the one hand, transcendent state-of-the-art escapism on the other. In this powerhouse equation, there was also room to recognize “Dallas Buyers Club,” a shrewd marriage of social conscience and seamless acting, as well as the intelligence and sly beauty of “Her.” But there was no room for the brassy, boisterous comedy of “American Hustle,” a movie that delighted in skewering our conventional notions of heroism and thus found itself hopelessly, if inadvertently, off-message.

Also shut out last night: just about any cinematic acknowledgment of human suffering on distant shores, and nowhere was this more pronounced than in the documentary feature category. “20 Feet From Stardom” is a joyous and accomplished film, but I grow suspicious of a group that, for the second year in a row, favored an uplifting celebration of musical artistry over something more hard-hitting — whether it’s the unpunished crimes perpetrated by Indonesian leaders in “The Act of Killing,” the unchecked escalation of the global war on terror in “Dirty Wars,” or the fractious outlines of a nascent Arab revolution in “The Square.” For one fleeting moment last night, I found myself more or less echoing Peter’s sense that all is right in the universe. But then, all it takes is a drama like Hany Abu-Assad’s foreign-language nominee “Omar” — or, barring that, a Jared Leto shout-out to Ukraine and Venezuela — to remind you that, on a larger scale, precisely the opposite is true. However far we like to think we’ve come, it’s never as far as there still remains to go.