John Horn, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2014
In the end, Oscar voters couldn’t truly avert their gaze from “12 Years a Slave.”
Even though many Oscar voters found filmmaker Steve McQueen’s searing chronicle of enslavement almost too harrowing to watch, “12 Years a Slave” prevailed Sunday to win the best picture trophy in one of the closest contests in modern Academy Awards history.
In a ceremony in which the space thriller “Gravity” collected a leading seven statuettes — including the first directing Oscar won by a Mexican-born filmmaker — the biggest honor went to the true-life account of the kidnapping and auctioning of Solomon Northup, a New York freeman bartered as a Louisiana cotton picker.
Owing to its unflinching representation of whippings, rape and lynchings, “12 Years a Slave” was not intended to be easy viewing. But it was continually buoyed by tremendous critical acclaim, and throughout the seemingly endless awards season it maintained momentum even when facing filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s blockbuster “Gravity” and writer-director David O. Russell‘s popular con game tale “American Hustle.”
McQueen became the first black director to make a best picture winnner, and “12 Years a Slave” was one of several movies last year that explored the often traumatic history of African Americans, a slate that included “42,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
The subject matter of “12 Years a Slave” sparked several thorny jokes within Hollywood, with host Ellen Degeneres opening the show at the Dolby Theatre by saying, “So many different possibilities. Possibility No. 1: ‘12 Years A Slave’ wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists.”
Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan actor who made her feature film debut in “12 Years a Slave” as the much-abused slave Patsey, delivered one of the evening’s most emotional acceptance speeches, recognizing that her honor was based on the actual suffering her real-life character endured some 170 years ago. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” Nyong’o said.
John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s 19th century memoir of the same name for “12 Years a Slave,” similarly bestowed his thanks on the man sold into slavery who memorialized his tale soon after his emancipation. “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup,” Ridley said in his adapted screenplay acceptance speech. “Those are his words, that is his life.”
For all of its acclaim, “12 Years a Slave” has done solid but not stunning business. It actually has performed better overseas than it has in domestic theater — grossing nearly $90 million internationally and $50 million in North America.
Cuaron’s film, by far the most successful of the best picture nominees with more than $700 million in global ticket sales, then took the next four prizes for which it was eligible: sound mixing, sound effects editing, cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, and editing. It lost out in production design to “The Great Gatsby,” but then it bounced right back by winning for score.