Oscar Season Diary #5: “12 Years a Slave” Changes the Game for Historical Dramas

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It’s all getting so old.

History, biographies, period pieces, that is; though things that have aged continue to fascinate those of us standing behind a contemporary camera.

Only last year, Lincoln was a phenomenal hit at the box-office, raking in nearly $200 million domestically on top of a multitude of Oscar nominations. The Academy tends to favor a fine work of historical pomp. Often, period pieces offer a chance for nearly all branches of the industry to shine. Elaborate costumes, lavish production design, and spot-on direction (and a flair for the old-fashioned) are often required to bring the past into the present, and each corresponding branch of the AMPAS succumbs to the appeal.

I’ve got no problems with these types of films. They’ve existed since the dawn of the industry, and will continue for as long as the medium exists–when the world around us becomes fodder for future filmmakers.

What bugs me is the austere intangibility that permeates a majority of the genre, The English Patient or Lincoln being fantastic examples. There’s no reason that stuffiness, rigidity, and sentimentality be treated as wherewithal to produce a compelling historical drama. American cinema tends to treat history in film as if it were an ancient vase on display at the finest art museum in the world.

We’re encouraged to gaze, but never to engage.

So enters 12 Years a Slave. A film from a black British director about an ugly period in American history, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t seem like it would bode well on the American consciousness. How can a foreign perspective genuinely articulate the struggle of an entire generation of American people?

Steve McQueen’s directorial vision is one which doesn’t rely on the sentiment of slavery to succeed, and his “outsider” perspective allows him no sense of duty to this country or to its history. He is a pure observer, and his film crosses boundaries we’re rarely permitted to. His film is one that knows its identity without having to rely on the pretense of actuality for built-in affect. McQueen ensures its harrowing atmosphere and hard-hits come from his hand as master of the ring, not by letting the overarching historical narrative cloud his forging of a cinematic path right through the middle.

12 Years a Slave becomes, at its core, a purely cinematic portrait of struggle instead of a pandering melodrama engulfed by a historical duty to respect the past while attempting to retell it.

That’s exactly what McQueen shies away from; he is not retelling, but refocusing. His account of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal as a free man forced back into slavery has no duty to a genre or style, as it exists as a masterwork in its own league. McQueen never lets the weight of his historical environment precede his focal character.

McQueen pads his film with shots of breathtaking beauty. Countless frames envelop us in the atmosphere of the south. Kinetic shots of wispy willows, serene lake shores, and expansive fields of green function at once to remind us of the beauty surrounding Solomon, tempting him with their natural right to simply exist in the face of his state of forced labor. The static, rigid cinematography framing the human subjects, on the other hand, confines its subjects. I recall dozens of static shots of slaves merely looking off into the distance–behind the audience, above the camera–as their meticulous positioning recalls early photographs and even chiaroscuro paintings of years past. Epic struggles of light and dark rage atop the characters faces, thanks to brilliant lighting and technical mastery. While beautiful on the surface, these images harbor grim contents which remind us that, while nature and life insist upon finding a way to fill our lives with beauty, it is man who destroys it and forces himself upon life, degrading it to the point of things like destruction, anger, and slavery.

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There’s a particularly interesting shot where, during Northrup’s struggle to survive, adapt, and preserve a spirit for his family, his glance meanders around the frame until it stops on the camera. His face reads so many things undetectable in the limited time we see it. There are traces of fear, of hope, of disturbance, of uncertainty; but, framed beautifully amidst a backdrop of natural greens, he sifts through these emotions and gazes upon us–only briefly so–in a powerful nudge to the audience to engage with what we’re seeing. Photographic composition and cinematic language can only transport us so far. We can only experience our past through photographs taken by those no longer alive and in text written by hands that have long since deteriorated back into the earth, but 12 Years a Slave urges us to see beyond glass case surrounding our past.

There is conclusion and closure to McQueen’s film, but it does not let us off the hook with a smile and a pat on the back for merely watching. We are cut lose from one story that McQueen chooses to tell, and the film resonates as a compartmentalized portrait of individual perseverance.

McQueen’s talents as a director guide us through events of slavery like we’ve never experienced before, and the film’s reception has invigorated my faith in the Academy. The Best Picture race is currently 12 Years a Slave’s to lose, as its burned a blazing trail since its premiere at Telluride earlier this year. Should it win, it will be a welcome departure from the cookie-cutter, feel-good, faux-heroism fantasies that have won top honors for the better part of the past decade. Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech are glorified procedurals that reaffirm basic emotions and sentiments which need no reaffirmation; happily-ever-after exists only in fantasy, whereas 12 Years a Slave is a dynamic challenge to the very core upon which we’re built.

In an Oscar year where three black filmmakers (McQueen, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler) are all a major part of the awards conversation, 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture will not only cement the Academy’s image as a more diverse cultural entity, but also will change how we see history in cinema. When it comes time to award a moment in history, the Academy is all for it. Schindler’s List, Argo, The King’s Speech, Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse each represent a very normative view of history, as in they’re all primarily from a white perspective about historically white issues. When a film that’s as daring and urgent as The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing comes along, it’s shut out from winning a single award. Is America afraid of the black voice? Has the dominance of cookie-cutter historical representation finally paid off for a black voice in a sea of sameness?

It’s increasingly tiring to watch the same formula for a historical drama. It’s about time someone showed us something new instead of telling us what we’ve heard in school.

12 Years a Slave might age as a film, but its urgency, insistence, and masterful intricacies will barely crack a wrinkle.

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