12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Oscars finally got it right.

It’s Time: What the Oscars finally got right

March 03, 2014 / by / 7 Comments

I read Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave twice in college. The first time was in a history class on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the narrative entirely changed my conception of slavery in the United States.

I had an academic, cerebral understanding of the terror and inhumanity of slavery before I was introduced to Northup’s incredible story—as any American hopefully does—but the particular details of Solomon Northup’s horrific journey from freedom in New York to slavery in Louisiana by way of the nation’s capital lent an even greater sense of awe at the monstrous tyranny of American slavery and the sheer force of individuals like Northup to resist such dehumanizing oppression. Slavery may be an incomprehensible institution of brutality and racial subjugation to the modern historical observer, but the everyday small moments and major battles of Northup’s story lent a sense of immediacy to the system of racial tyranny; from Northup’s numerous attempts to write a letter home to his battle with a vicious overseer, Twelve Years a Slave gave multi-dimensional depth and visible human pain to the historic struggle to express humanity in an inhumane system that was sometimes lacking in textbooks or modern representations of the antebellum and Civil War era.

The second time I read Twelve Years a Slave was two years later in a class on black migrations within the United States. It was interesting to read Northup’s recollection in the context of African American movement within the United States from the transatlantic slave trade up through the Great Migration to the current rumblings of a remigration. But there was something else which, ever since that class, sticks out as much (if not more) in my mind. That class was where I first heard that plans for a movie version of Northup’s slave narrative were in the works.

The idea seemed laughable. First of all, the only three people I knew to be involved in the movie at the time were Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt—not exactly the dream team you’d expect to honestly grapple with the nation’s most important and wretched historical institution.1 But second, and most importantly, it seemed unfathomable that Hollywood would allow a script to come to fruition that so frankly depicted black resilience against the brutality of a white institution, and even if such a movie were made that anybody would see it.

I was wrong, and I’m glad for it. The searing film version of Northup’s tale, director Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 Years a Slave, became a financial and critical success. The film has grossed $140 million and seemingly endless critical acclaim. More importantly, it won three Academy Awards: for Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), and Best Picture. Gravity may have won more hardware last night, but no film carried as much weight this year as 12 Years a Slave.

In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, Fox Searchlight began running ads that read “It’s Time,” presumably in an attempt to guilt voters into supporting a film that would have been the first Best Director award for a black director and certainly a watershed moment for major films dealing with America’s racial past. It was a stupid ad campaign, one that played on a counterproductive sense of white guilt and probably did little to sway voters who no doubt knew all they needed to know regarding the historical implications of the movie.

But maybe it was time for something else. It was time for the Oscars to stop rewarding crappy movies that exploited rather than interrogated structural sociopolitical issues that are deeply ingrained in American culture (Crash). It was time for the Oscars to stop slobbering over films that dealt with race in the most watered-down and asymmetric way possible, rather than actually delving head-on into what was at play and possibly offending a few septuagenarian backseat drivers (Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture the same year Do the Right Thing came out. Never forget). And dear God, it was time for the Oscars to stop self-congratulatingly clapping fellow white people on the back for virtuously saving powerless minorities-in-distress and conveniently absolving white America from our own guilt in the process (The Blind Side, Schindler’s List, The Help).

So let’s not start congratulating the Academy as some sort of radical organization that has changed the complicated role that race plays in America for the better thanks to a couple of votes cast this year. But I am thankful that the Oscars finally took a step in a historic direction by rewarding a movie that took a long, hard, and unflinching look at slavery and told the amazing story of Solomon Northup in such a compelling and breathtaking way—furthering (sometimes forcefully) a conversation about race and history that America needs to continue to hold.

Beyond the Academy giving the Oscar to a good movie about race, what’s probably even more important is that Steve McQueen and company did what only a couple of months ago I thought was nearly impossible: They made a brilliant and commercially-successful movie that directly addressed slavery in America. And that movie was clearly the best film that came out this year. More than anything else I am grateful that 12 Years a Slave challenged us and raised the bar for films dealing with serious issues like race in America, rather than the watered-down pap the Academy, as noted above, has historically rewarded.

For too long the Academy gave trophies to bad movies that dealt with race. It was time that changed.