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Is '12 Years a Slave' an Oscar Lock? Please Don't Ask

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 9, 2013 at 12:23PM

Writers talking up the best-picture chances of Steve McQueen's harrowing slavery drama are avoiding the hard questions it poses.
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chewitel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chewitel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

Based on the true story of a free black man who was sold into slavery in the American South, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave has been greeted with fervent and near-universal praise in Toronto, as well as by assertions that its rapturous reception virtually guarantees a Best Picture win. "Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave" predicts Vulture's Kyle Buchanan, while BuzzFeed's Adam B. Vary went for a more exhortatory approach: "12 Years a Slave Is the Must-See Movie of the Year, and Should Win All the Oscars." By Saturday afternoon, a few hours after the film's first press screening, Indiewire's Peter Knegt could say he was "repeating the chorus that 12 Years a Slave is winning best picture."

The chorus grew so great that Grantland Oscarologist Mark Harris -- one of the rare writers who covers the race as a bonafide journalist rather than a studio sycophant -- was moved to weigh in from New York: "You guys declaring the Best Picture race over know you're not doing 12 Years a Slave any favors, right?" Harris wouldn't have to go far back to find evidence that movies declared early frontrunners often end up losing: Try last year, when Argo premiered at Toronto and was promptly slotted as solid but nothing spectacular, and hardly awards material. The Huffington Post's Mike Ryan, who wasn't one of the Oscar hypemen, called 12 Years a Slave "the Saving Private Ryan of slavery movies," which if true would mean there's another Shakespeare in Love waiting in the wings.

The thing is, the people calling 12 Years a Slave a Best-Picture lock know that as well, which leaves one of two explanations. Either they're deliberately saying something ridiculous because it will make a big splash, or they're, as Vary admitted in an exchange with Harris, using Oscar predictions as "a crude shorthand for authentic emotional [reactions]."

Crude shorthand is what Twitter does best, but it's not the best way to hash out the history of slavery, or the intricate complexity that's as much a part of 12 Years a Slave as its gut-sock power.  In a particularly infelicitous tweet, the Los Angeles Times' Steven Zeitchik said the movie "will change the Oscar race, sure, but more to the point, it will change the conversation on race," bringing delicate issues to bear by way of a crude pun.

There's something disturbing, and slightly warped, about the ease with which Oscar talk takes the place of substantive reaction: Imagine telling your high-school sweetheart, "I love you so much; you're a lock for prom queen." There's a gut element to Oscar predictions, but at heart they're strategic calculations: Can Fox Searchlight hold onto first place for five solid months? How McQueen's intense intellectualism play on the campaign trail? Those may be interesting questions, but they're not important ones. The questions 12 Years a Slave means to ask are much thornier, and a lot harder to answer.

This article is related to: Toronto International Film Festival, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, Chewitel Ejiofor

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