5 Reasons '12 Years a Slave’ Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

5 Reasons '12 Years a Slave' Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

The brutal drama has been anointed a sure winner in some circles — but the Oscar race is a marathon, not a sprint

Hold your horses, everybody. The Oscar race isn't over yet.

Since “12 Years a Slave” premiered in Telluride and bowled over audiences there and in Toronto, there's been a rush in some circles to declare the harrowing film a sure-fire Oscar winner, and to seal its victory more than five months before the final envelope will be opened on the stage of the Dolby Theater.

“Suspend the betting, close the books and notify the engraver,” wrote Kyle Buchanan at Vulture after the film's first Toronto screening, on Sept. 7. “I've just seen what will surely be this year's Best Picture winner.”

A week later, after the film took the People's Choice Award at Toronto, Awards Daily's Sasha Stone tweeted, “Okay naysayers, 12 Years a Slave wins audience award at TIFF. And so, yeah. #donedeal.”

Adobe Photoshop PDFTo which I'd like to say: #notsofast.

Certainly, “12 Years a Slave” is the leader as of mid-September. It is a brutal, uncompromising and emotionally devastating adaptation of the book written by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Also read: Harvey Weinstein on the Rise of African-American Films: ‘It's the Obama Effect’

It features towering performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and others.

It will likely win a number of critics’ awards, and it will be impossible for any serious voter to ignore when Oscar ballots become available in December.

But does that make it an automatic winner?

Not now. Not yet.

Granted, I have it listed at No. 1 on my personal predictions list at GoldDerby.com, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if it comes out on top next March 2, as a deserving, landmark winner.

But c'mon – when I predicted that “The Hurt Locker” would win in August '09 and called “The King's Speech” in September '10, I never pretended that those races were over.  So here are a few reasons why it's jumping the gun to say so this year.

1. The Oscar race is a marathon, not a sprint.
Occasionally, a movie comes out of Toronto as the favorite, and stays there. Case in point: “Slumdog Millionaire,” in 2008-2009.

But typically, that's not how it works. “The Hurt Locker” snuck up on people and became the little movie that could after a string of critics’ awards set it into a David vs. Goliath competition with “Avatar.” “The King's Speech” came out of Toronto on fire, watched “The Social Network” win with nearly every critics’ group, and then rallied once the guilds began to vote. “Argo” endured the near-fatal blow of Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, and used that snub to stage a comeback that quickly turned into a runaway.

There is a lot of time between September and March, and the narrative that wins the Oscars is more often than not a narrative with twists and turns.

12-years-a-slave2. Great expectations? Not so great.
I've already had one person come up to me after seeing “12 Years a Slave” in Toronto and say, “Well, it wasn't that good.” There will be more.

When advance raves from film festivals are as extravagant as they have been for “12 Years,” things can get dicey once a film begins screening outside the festival environment. As good as the movie is, some viewers are bound to go in expecting the most powerful drama they've ever seen — and if it isn't that, their reaction will be colored by disappointment.

That's why as much as Fox Searchlight no doubt appreciates all the raves for their movie, the premature Oscar proclamations probably make them very, very nervous.

Also read: Toronto: '12 Years a Slave’ Leaves Another Festival Audience Shaken

At a certain point, the desire to be on the winning team will be enough to overcome feelings of being let down if a movie doesn't quite live up to the advance hype. But we're months away from that bandwagon mentality kicking in on “12 Years a Slave” — so for now, every rave review and every proclamation that the race is over is simply laying the groundwork for voters to be disappointed.

3. You can't ignore the screener factor.
It's no secret that Academy voters watch a lot of their films on screeners. And inevitably, they watch a bunch of those screeners over the Christmas or Thanksgiving holidays, with their families around. That's why there's always a glut of screeners arriving in the mail the week before Thanksgiving, and a final barrage in mid-December – everybody wants to be one of those DVDs that voters throw in the suitcase and take to Aspen or Hawaii.

But after a family dinner, are they really going to reach for the brutal two-and-a-half hour movie about slavery?

“The King's Speech” was the movie they reached for; so were “The Artist,” “Argo,” “Midnight in Paris” and others of that ilk. “12 Years a Slave” demands attention, but it's not going to leap to the top of that screener pile.

"12 Years A Slave" Portraits - 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Getty Images

4. Steve McQueen is an artist, not a salesman.
The British-born director of “12 Years” is a smart man. He is also a man who does not suffer fools gladly, and one who can be argumentative — in a low-key, polite way — with interviewers and moderators who ask questions with premises he doesn't agree with.

If you look at the last couple of directors of Oscar-winning films, they worked overtime to ingratiate themselves with voters. Ben Affleck charmed every room he entered for six solid months – and he entered an enormous number of rooms in those six months. “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius spent so much time in Los Angeles that his movie qualified for the Indie Spirit Awards as an American film. (He was considered a permanent resident.)

Also read: Director Steve McQueen on His Brutal '12 Years a Slave': It's a Film About Love

It is nothing against Steve McQueen as a filmmaker to say that he will probably not work around the clock at being nice to people on the awards circuit. It won't diminish his film one iota if he doesn't embrace the old grip ‘n’ grin, and it'd be nice to think that it won't hurt his film's chances, either.

But will it be accurate to think that? After all, David Fincher didn't do it, either … and, well, he lost to a tireless campaigner, Tom Hooper.

5. We haven't seen everything.
At this point in 2004, nobody had seen “Million Dollar Baby,” and Oscar-watchers were talking about “The Aviator” and “Sideways.” Two years earlier, “Chicago” didn't premiere until Dec. 10.

This year, we haven't seen David O. Russell's “American Hustle,” Martin Scorsese's “The Wolf of Wall Street,” George Clooney's “The Monuments Men,” John Lee Hancock's “Saving Mr. Banks,”  Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher” and Ben Stiller's “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” among others.

On paper, most of those don't seem as if they can beat “12 Years a Slave,” and the year's final batch of films inevitably contains disappointments. But it also typically drops some last-minute surprises into the race, and at times it does contain a Best Picture winner.

The simple fact is that we haven't seen all of the competition for “12 Years.” And until we have, we don't have enough information to flatly declare that it will win.

It might win. Heck, it probably will win.

But this thing ain't over by a long shot.

  • jhs39

    Very dark movies and demanding movies tend to lose out the Best Picture prize to something lighter and more crowd pleasing that the Weinsteins put out. They were masters at this at Miramax and seem to have found the touch again at their current company as well. I haven't seen 12 Years A Slave yet but based on what I've read about it and the Academy's recent history I find it extremely unlikely that a brutal film about slavery will win Best Picture over something voters can feel good about.

    • fred

      Sometimes, but not all of the time my friend. “Godfather” parts I & II, “”One Who Flew The Coo-Coo's Nest”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Platoon”, “The Silence Of The Lambs”, “Schindler's List”, “Braveheart”, “The Gladiator”, “Crash”, “The Departed” and “The Hurt Locker” are just some shinning examples of dark and and many times brutal films winning best picture over the last 40 years, so it's certainly not unprecedented by any means.

      • jhs39

        I really can't agree with your list. The Godfather 1 & 2; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Deer Hunter are from the 1970's, which was an entirely different era. Platoon was from the 1980's, which was also a different era, although in a different way. I would consider the 1990's and beyond to be comparable to today. From your list The Silence of the Lambs; Braveheart; Gladiator and The Departed are all popcorn flicks that do not challenge the audience in any meaningful way.

        Crash was nominated against Brokeback Mountain; Capote and and Munich. It's really hard to argue that Crash was the darkest or most challenging movie in that bunch.

        Schindler's List is a Holocaust film so it doesn't count.

        That shouldn't need clarification but in case it does: On the first season of Extras Kate Winslet appeared in an episode as herself. The joke was that she was making a Holocaust themed film because she finally wanted to win an Oscar. That was several years before she made The Reader–a Holocaust themed film–for which she finally won an Oscar.

        The Hurt Locker is the only movie on your list that really qualifies as a recent winner that was dark and challenging, but it's an anomaly. If you remember the front-runner the year The Hurt Locker won was considered Avatar. Avatar had thrilling special effects but in every other respect it's a pretty lousy movie. I think that having Avatar as it's primary competition probably helped The Hurt Locker a lot.

        Last year is a perfect illustration of what I am talking about. There were two middle-east themed films nominated for Best Picture–Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Zero Dark Thirty was unquestionably the more challenging and ambitious film but movies like Argo are almost always going to win that fight.

        • fred

          You don't seem to get the point that i'm making, obviously you just let it fly right over your head. I was simply giving you examples of dark challenging films that have won best picture over the last 40 years, I could have easily narrowed it down to the last 10-20 years if that's what you we're looking for. And to be honest I could have thrown “Slumdog Millionare” in that category as well, since it is for all intent and purposes a very dark film in it's own right. So you're saying that Silence Of The Lambs, Braveheart, Gladiator and The Departed are all popcorn flicks that do not challenge your mind in a meaningful way LOL, man are you high or something, yes they do. I don't know what films you we're looking at. And if you're going to make a statement that films with dark natures never win, but then backtrack when someone like myself calls you out with facts that prove you wrong, you can't all of a sudden back peddle to only 10-15 years of recent movie history, it doesn't work like that my friend. And the films I listed in the 70's and 80's you just want throw them on the backburner like they never existed or don't count, that doesn't work either buddy. Look i'm not saying “12 Years a Slave” will win anything for sure, but I think if it's momentum continues to build over the next few month it will set itself up for a damn good chance to win some awards. Also keep this in mind, though 1989 only 4 black actors or actresses had won an Oscar in a leading or supporting role, since that time there have been 8 Oscar wins for blacks in a leading or supporting role. What I mean by that is times change and everything won't always go according to plan year after, sometime that cycle does break, do you dig what i'm saying.

          • jhs39

            I'm not sure why my painfully detailed response to your message didn't make any sense to you. First of all Hollywood was a different place in the 1970's and 1980's making different types of movies and what won in 1971 is completely irrelevant to whether 12 Years A Slave has any chance of winning an Oscar, which is what my original post was about. Second, if you think commercial popcorn flicks like Gladiator, Silence of the Lambs and The Departed are actually challenging then you need to consider seriously expanding your film-going palette and watch some foreign language and independent films. Most people who are serious about movies don't even consider Crash a good movie–let alone a dark or challenging one that deserved to win Best Picture. It was easily the safest of the nominees that year except for Good Night and Good Luck. All of the movies you picked from the 90's on to the present (except for The Hurt Locker) were safe commercial movies that were big hits. Slumdog Millionaire had some dark moments but it's ultimately a crowd pleaser with an extremely happy ending. It was also big hit. When I'm talking about a dark challenging movie I'm talking about something like Requiem for a Dream or A Serbian Film–not Gladiator or The Departed. We're really operating from completely different frames of reference.

          • fred

            Me and you are just going to have to agree to disagree on some of these movies my friend, Silence Of The Lambs, Gladiator & The Departed are great films in my opinion. Like I said I was just making a point that “12 Years a Slave” could win an Oscar when it's said and done, to sit up here and act like it would be impossible is being foolish and one track minded man. So you're telling me that “Schindler's List” a very powerful film falls into that safe commercial category, come on now I know you're smarter than that, at least I would hope so, lol. Hey i'm all about dark challenging non-commercial films as well, “Glory”, “Malcom X”, “Hotel Rwanda”, “Pan's Labyrinth”, “Monster”, “Precious”, “The Return”, “Dirty Pretty Things”, “City Of God”, “Maria Full Of Grace”, “Vera Drake”, “Rabbit Proof Fence”, “Children of Men”, “A History Of Violence”, “Devil's Backbone”, “Moolade”, “Tsotsi”, “Last King Of Scotland”, etc. I love movies too my friend, and I know a little something myself.

          • jhs39

            You're changing my comments to suit your purposes. I never said Schindler's List was a safe commercial film. I said it didn't count because it was a Holocaust film. Holocaust films are catnip for Academy Voters since so many of them are Jewish. Ricky Gervais wasn't displaying psychic powers when he did that Extras episode with Kate Winslet–he was parodying a truth about Hollywood that some people like to pretend doesn't exist.

            When Vanessa Redgrave won an Oscar for Julia in 1977 she made pro-Palestinian comments during her acceptance speech that were loudly booed. She didn't appear in another Hollywood film after that for over 20 years. When Todd Phillips wanted to give Mel Gibson a small part in Hangover 2 the idea was nixed because the cast and crew would much rather work with a convicted rapist (Mike Tyson) than a possible anti-semite.

            Over the past 40 years there have probably been less than a half dozen theatrically released Hollywood movies that dealt with slavery even though slavery had a much greater effect on this country's history than the Holocaust did. But Hollywood makes Holocaust themed movies with regularity even though they rarely make money. Someone on the IMDB made a list of the 50 most moving Holocaust films. The World's Best Film Blog has a list of the 100 top Holocaust films. The year The Reader came out there were 5 other Holocaust themed movies released over a period of a few months.

            Schindler's List does not count because it's the slickest, most expensive Holocaust movie ever made and there was no way it wasn't going to win Best Picture.

            Of all the challenging non-commercial films you listed how many won the Best Picture Oscar? How many were even nominated?

          • fred

            Come on now buddy, everything counts, we can't start leaving movies out to suit our purposes, LOL. That Redgrave incident was certainly one of the very few rare moments you've ever seen at the Oscars, another was the year Marlon Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather and he didn't show up to accept his award, instead he sent Native Americans in his place to speak for a cause he believed in, that was a bold and controversial move as well. Rather I agree with you on some issues or disagree with you, it's cool to debate with you. You seem to be pretty intelligent and have a lot to say, it always beats the hell out of having no opinion. I remember a comment Malcolm X once said, I have more respect for a man that has something to say than one that has nothing to say, even if I disagree with that man and think he's wrong, at least he has an opinion as opposed to saying nothing. It's never nothing wrong with a little healthy debates and opinions, as long as their kept respectful with reasonable thoughts and intelligence, I think we've both displayed that to a pretty good degree in my opinion. Care to agree on that, LOL. PS I think the whole reaction to Mel Gibson's little tirade was a little overboard, did the man make a mistake and say some things he should not have said, yes. But the media unfairly jumped the gun on this guy and acted like he raped or killed somebody, it was not that damn dramatic. It just goes to show you how some folks can overreact to every little damn issue in life.

          • Michelle Kirkwood

            Overreact my %$#—the man said some incredibly hateful racist and nasty stuff about black and Jewish folks, plus he was accused of being abusive toward his now ex-girlfriend,and on top of that he was a raging alcoholic who'd lost his damn mind on top of that–no wonder his spouse divorced him. So it wasn't just some things he said,it was the things he actually DID that made him persona non grata in the business. Plus he's an arrogant,crazy bastard who started to think he was GOD or something after the success of THE PASSION—he actually built his own church and tried to start some new religion–he was basically borderline nut case anyway.

          • fred

            Oh the man did say some despicable and deplorable things and his career has never been the same because of it. Unfortunately he's not the first person to make such foolish remarks and hurt his career over it, but some people choose to learn the hard way. Many people will never forgive him for his remarks, I haven't either, I just moved on from it, that's all. The media does have a history of instigating and inflating situations though, but at the same time when you're in the spotlight you really better watch what you say, because if you say the wrong thing you can be screwed.

          • garystartswithg

            you are arguing with someone that thinks Braveheart is worthy of something. may as well find a cinder block to argue with.

          • fred

            Look here man, just because I think “Braveheart” is a great film doesn't mean I agree with Gibson's tirade at all, because I don't. You can like a film and disagree with it's star at the same time, damn chill out bro and put your mind at ease.

  • fred

    You're right, no film can be proclaimed an award winner in September and i'm not even a big fan of the Oscars. However I will say that i'm really looking forward to seeing “12 Years a Slave', it's certainly one of my most anticipated films of the year. I hope it's a great as I've been hearing it is.

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    They were masters at this at Miramax and seem to have found the touch again at their current company as well. I haven't seen 12 Years A Slave yet but based on what I've read about it and the Academy's recent history I find it extremely unlikely that a brutal film about slavery will win Best Picture over something voters can feel good about.

  • Film_Shark

    It is pretentious how critics are already weighing in on their Oscar predictions when the public hasn't even seen many of these new films yet. And by the way, don't forget about Forest Whitaker's stellar performance in ‘The Butler.’

    • garystartswithg

      12 yrs is a lot more complete package than the butler. while i won't knock forest whitaker, other people were cast for marketing and hearing people paid to blather on about their magnificent performance was a bit much.

  • Mr. Ab

    Can anyone see the actual “subtext” of this unnecessary article? A masterpiece is a masterpiece is a masterpiece. Period. The dialog that will generated once this film goes “public” will be unprecedented. I've had that the privilege of viewing 12 YEARS in a private screening that included a post-screening symposium with the actors and the director. Despite all of the unflinching brutality that is depicted in the film, EVERYONE in the room was moved by this film in a way that I have never seen before. With regards to the the director not being a “salesman.” Well, frankly he doesn't have to be. The film will sell itself. And although I'm sure he'd clearly be happy to see this film win THE oscar (as any director would be), it was more important for him to deliver a usually “glossed-over” story of TRUTH. And that is more important than ANY ACADEMY AWARD. Job well done.

  • fred

    Obviously it's way too early to foolish be proclaiming any film an Oscar winner, time will truly tell. Like I've said before i'm really excited to see “12 Years a Slave”, and i'll leave it at that.

  • Donella

    The director of 12 Years a Slave is not a salesman. But the producer (Brad Pitt) certainly is.

  • Elle

    How sad is it that these are the criteria for winning the award? This is why the Oscars have become a joke to anyone who really loves movies.

    • rosie1843

      “Have become”? The Oscars have been like this since its first year.

  • jepressman

    As I recall Lincoln was supposed to win the Oscar for BP and instead Argo took the Oscar.

  • Jen

    So two of your points are that one person came up to you and said “Its not THAT good” and the other is that the director isnt a kiss ass?

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      For real—that's only ONE person who told the author they didn't like
      it—that's just ONE person's opinion,which won't even factor into
      anything about the film,anyway. And so what if McQueen isn't kissing ass
      to try and sell the film—why the hell does he have to? Since when is
      it only incumbent upon the director to do that,anyway? That's what PR
      and the studios are for. Geesh. Having seen the film myself, it's all
      it's cracked up to be and more–I wouldn't be surprised if it won
      anything, especially with how uncompromising it is toward its subject.

  • q q

    Whoever wrote this article is an absolute idiot

  • Sferd

    Finally! An explanation as to how Tom Hooper beat David Fincher!

  • Whiskey Bumps

    Well it's been out awhile now and truth be told it is not doing so well in the box office. Perhaps too brutal to watch?

  • mmmhhg

    wow this article is garbage, plain and simple

  • Kirb

    Well maybe if Hollywood wasn't so politically correct….the voting on Oscar winners would be more honest. Just do a simple percentage analysis of the increase in black oscar nominees and winners since Obama won the presidency. And save your fingers the additional burden of typing what a racist post this is. It's an observation.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      Yeah, your post is ridiculous—12 Years a Slave is getting hype because it's actually a good film,not because we have a black president. See if first before you make any more silly comments. And what the hell does being PC have to do with the film? Not s damn thing, so get off that.