As Oscar night approaches, and the biggest movies, actors, and directors–and the rest of the world–prepare to celebrate the best of the year in film, we are once again met with controversy surrounding the films the Academy has chosen to honor. In a truly memorable year for film there are bound to be some differences in opinion over who should have been honored. However, increasingly the controversies that surround Oscar night do not revolve around the merits of the films chosen, but rather how and why the big, bad Academy picks them. Recently, this all-seeing entity has taken even greater flak for its lack of transparency. But while they say they are the most knowledgeable and have the best interests of the film world in mind, the inherent anonymity of the organization refutes this notion. What exactly do they have to hide?
A recent investigative piece done by the Los Angeles Times found that the autonomous and largely anonymous Academy is made up of 94 percent Caucasians and 77 percent males, and many have argued that a certain amount of “white guilt” is what leads to many of the Academy’s choices. But while that may subconsciously sneak into the minds of the voters, I argue that the reason films based on such topics as slavery, war, and politics consistently win big at the Oscars is not due simply to the obligation of the voters, but rather the quality of the films and staying power that they might have. For if drama, emotional strife, and change are what great movies are based on, these types of films have it in bunches.
“12 Years a Slave” is this kind of film, and it is also one of the favorites to win Best Picture this year. And while it is the only one of the nine nominated to feature a predominantly non-white cast, if it were to win, one could not point to the color of the actors’ skin as the reason, but to the utter brilliance of the filmmaking, acting, and story. From the beginning, the life of a free northerner kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 is just a more powerful story than a road trip moving between an alcoholic octogenarian and his son in the case of “Nebraska,” or the drug- and sex-fueled romp through the early ’90s of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But “12 Years a Slave” also offers something to the Academy voters that the other eight films nominated for Best Picture might not be able to: legacy.
If you ask somebody to name a Best Picture Winner from the 1990s, odds are they would say something like “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” or “Titanic” before they mention “Shakespeare in Love” or “American Beauty.” In 1979, the family drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” took home Best Picture; in 1980, the intimate “Ordinary People” won; and in 1998, “Shakespeare in Love.” These movies have since become footnotes in film history, while movies that they beat for the grand prize, such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Raging Bull,” and “Saving Private Ryan” still occupy a major position in the collective film consciousness. The embellished or symptomatic atrocity/war/disaster film is usually more memorable than an esoteric one. These kind of “big” movies seem to have a definite advantage in the Best Picture race because they are the safe or conservative vote. It is better to vote for the film that will be discussed and debated in 20 years than the one that might become a Jeopardy question.
While all nine films nominated are excellent, the two Best Picture favorites, the aforementioned “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” are the only ones that I believe are guaranteed to be discussed in 20 years. “Her” was easily my favorite movie of the year, but is an acquired taste and is more of a meditation on love and life than a Best Picture-kind of film. “The Wolf of Wall Street” was a disgusting amount of fun, “Philomena” was sweet and very enjoyable, but the visual spectacle of “Gravity,” and the all-around power of “12 Years a Slave” will stay in the public’s mind for years.
I expect “12 Years a Slave” will win Best Picture this year because of many factors: it features a diverse cast, which sends a positive message to people of color; it has a “big” story and potential legacy; but, most importantly, it truly was a great film. But in this outstanding year for film, any of the nine nominated films deserve to take home the grand prize. For once, even the Academy cannot mess this one up.