Oscars Turn into Guilty Conscience Contest

The theme, and the most interesting thing about the 2013 Oscars — from “Lincoln” to “Zero Dark Thirty,” from “Argo” to “Django Unchained” — was America’s introspective rewriting of its relatively recent history. “Argo,” the most linear and reassuring and also the least problematic and unresolved of the nominees, came out the winner of this blatant need to revisit the dark moments of the American dream.

It was not by chance that the winner was the one with a happy ending, both explicitly (the American hostages freed from their siege in the U.S. embassy in Tehran) and implicitly (the U.S. was able to intervene successfully in another country without shedding so much as one drop of blood).

Apart from the start of the school year and a reluctant return to Washington for the members of Congress, early September also sounds the gong for the race for the Academy Awards.

Early signs suggest America examining its own conscience will be the theme again this year. After Tarantino’s explosive voyage into the depths of slavery (in which he used the spaghetti Western as a pretext for a cinematic shoot-out with John Ford), a Philadelphia African-American and an English descendent of African immigrants from the Caribbean (Grenada) present two true stories of the black experience.

While in terms of skin color, the relationship between master and servant in the White House between 1957 and 1991 may seem akin to that of a plantation, this time we are confronted with a butler, not a slave, as the protagonist of the new film from Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”). “The Butler” was inspired by the story of Eugene Allen, who was hired by President Eisenhower and personally waited upon U.S. heads of state for the following 34 years. From images constantly soaked in golden light and the grandiose music to Forest Whitaker’s “Forrest Gump”-style performance (Cecil Gaines plays the role of the butler) to Oprah Winfrey’s smart and exacting presence (she also produced “Precious”) and the sometimes flawed presidential cameos of Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), Liev Schrieber (Johnson), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan) and Alan Rickman (Reagan) … “The Butler” has “made for the Oscars” written all over it. What could have been a fascinating side story for its detail (from a 2008 article published in The Washington Post a few days after Barack Obama won the election) is caught in a preachy structure. Through the prism of the conflicted father-son relationship between Gaines and Louis (played by David Oyelowo), the film ticks through a list of all the important points of American history of that period (the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Vietnam, Watergate, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, school segregation and Reagan versus Nelson Mandela). By essentially publicly flogging the wrongdoer, Daniels blurs the line between exploitation and political correctness, provoking opposing and passionate reactions, whether that is his intention or not.

Artist/director Steve McQueen’s third film “12 Years a Slave” would seem a very different beast at first glance. It too portrays a biography, that of Solomon Northup, whose memoir was first published in 1853, a few months after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe came out. Having disappeared out of circulation at the end of the ‘70s, when academic Sue Eakin revived the memoir, it retraced the Northup case. A free-born musician, married with two children in Minerva, in the state of New York, Northup went to Washington on the promise of work only to find himself kidnapped, given a new name, bundled straight onto a ship in Louisiana and sold as a slave to plantation owners of ever-increasing cruelty. Together with screenwriter John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Red Tails,” and here in Toronto making his first foray into directing, “All Is by My Side,” a film on Jimi Hendrix’s early years), McQueen had long been working on a film on slavery that would be produced by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s film production company. It was McQueen’s wife, historian Bianca Stitger, who suggested Northup’s book to him. The director of “Hunger” and “Shame” has frequently said the book was an immediate revelation and has repeatedly likened it to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “only 100 years earlier.”

Unlike Daniels’ intentionally squalid pulp fiction, McQueen’s films are infused with his vast visual arts experience. He produces cold and beautiful studied images that contrast with the shock value of his subject matter — in the case of his work for the big screen, Bobby Sands’ agony or the frenetic addiction or sexual slavery of the protagonist in “Shame.” “Twelve Years a Slave” is made with the same guiding principle. Together with his long-time photographic director Sean Bobbitt, McQueen constructs the film as a series of living pictures of cruelty with very long scenes, often in full shot, elegantly assembled with the beauty of the background interrupted by the horror of what is taking place in the scene — a man hung upside down for a whole day, a slave repeatedly raped or whipped to death.

He challenges the audience with unbearable images — in case anyone had any doubts as to the horror or inhumaneness of slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, Michael Fassbender (the director’s personal favorite actor) his worst slave driver and Brad Pitt the Canadian carpenter who saves him.

“The film is about love,” McQueen said in an interview with Film Comment, “a word not often used in this context. I wanted to ‘embrace’ the crime of slavery, a supposed acceptance, and not just on my part.”* In the universally positive reviews, a few critics said the film had made them cry. “Twelve Years a Slave” also screams, “I want the Oscar,” just in a smarter and less obvious way. It has a happy ending in common with “The Butler.”

*Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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