Tony Norman: Oscar for '12 Years' is a welcome surprise


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I'm not a cynical guy. Though the smart money was always on Lupita Nyong'o to win the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Patsey in "12 Years a Slave," few pundits predicted that such a dark and uncompromising film about America's original sin would win best motion picture -- though it always had a better than even shot to win best adapted screenplay.

Though Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film's star, was in practically every scene as the free-born Solomon Northup, a musician who was lured from New York and sold into slavery in the South, it was way too restrained a performance to push the Oscar needle in his direction.

One of my sons just finished reading the book and vowed to never complain about anything ever again, given the horror of Solomon Northup's predicament. He was moved by Solomon's eloquence but annoyed by what he called a "blase attitude" that occasionally filtered up from the narrative like swamp gas.

From what I could tell from his brief critique of the book, Paris was offended that such a brilliant man took time from an unbearably tense story to explain, say, the minutiae of cotton harvesting. Likewise, his description of the debasement he and the other slaves routinely underwent was often too clinical, my son said.

Though Solomon used what was clearly a coping strategy in a pre-psychological age to distance himself from slavery's daily horrors and indignities, it has some parallels in director Steve McQueen's often detached, but richly composed, movie.

"12 Years a Slave" is superior to 2012's slave narrative "Django Unchained" on every level, but it isn't a crowd pleaser by any stretch of the imagination. It is a tough movie to watch despite its artistic pedigree.

While Quentin Tarantino's "Django" eschewed realism and verisimilitude for good ol' fashioned revenge wrought by the slaves upon their oppressors, "12 Years" stuck to the depressing facts as Solomon wrote them, with only a few concessions to the siren call of artistic license.

In real life, Solomon became a "hero" in the abolitionist community simply because he endured bondage long enough to win his freedom. In a sense, he got the last word on those who tried, but failed, to break his spirit. Still, other than gaining his freedom by a court's decision, Solomon never received full justice or compensation for his stolen labor. While he was gone for a dozen years, his wife remarried. He was also robbed of the satisfaction of seeing his children grow into young adulthood.

Meanwhile, the men who kidnapped him perjured themselves in court without consequence, and his former "owners" escaped legal sanction merely because they were white and privileged. Solomon's word against theirs meant nothing. A free black man, no matter how esteemed by the community or how much property he owned, was still a nonentity in the eyes of American law.

None of these facts made it into the final cut because it would've further diminished the film's already excruciatingly sad "happy ending." As a result, the movie ended too abruptly for my tastes, though I still "enjoyed" it, if one could use that term to describe a film about slavery. I thought it was a very good movie but not necessarily a great one, though most of the performances were stellar.

When "12 Years" was nominated for best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actor and best supporting actress, I thought the Academy voters were simply checking boxes to look progressive. There was no way its 6,000 demographically skewed, older, white voters would, in the end, elevate a slave drama over the perky, vivacious "American Hustle" with its over-the-top performances by Hollywood's elite. It was too much an anti-Django. Or so I thought.

I was vaguely surprised by John Ridley's win for adapted screenplay -- not so by losses by Mr. Ejiofor, Mr. McQueen as director and Michael Fassbender for best supporting actor. I was stunned, however, when Will Smith announced "12 Years a Slave" as best picture. I honestly didn't see it coming.

Watching the multiracial cast and crew led by an African-British director take the stage to accept the best picture Oscar for a film about slavery that wasn't a cartoon, it felt like doors had finally opened in Hollywood -- and America.

With some luck, the success of "12 Years" will result in more quality films about aspects of the black experience in America that don't involve slavery. Narrative shackles are still shackles, even if they're golden.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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