10 Days of Oscar #1 – 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Hello everyone! Today starts a favorite feature for the people of this blog, the 10 Days of Oscar. Each day we’ll take a look at the 9 nominees to Best Picture (in alphabetical order) plus one more movie (to complete the 10 days) that was nominated to a certain number of awards but wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. So, without further ado, let’s start our journey through the Oscar movies of 2013.

by Jaime Grijalba.

The favorite to win the Oscar this year, thanks to the Academy, is also one of the best films of the year, actually in my top 10 for the best movies of 2013, something that doesn’t happen that often in these recent years where my choices have been more related to the unknown side of the cinema before the more mainstream one, as this might be the year where I had the most nominees in my best of 2013 list in all the years that I’ve been doing it. So, taking that thing for consideration, this might also be one of those memorable films about what the slave problem was in United States and the world and actually make me care for it, because I can say at least that this movie made it universal, it didn’t make it about revenge or pain (though the latter was highly featured, and the first was the basis for ‘Django Unchained’ (2012), a film I consider a masterpiece) but made it about the suffering of the people that are under the restriction of those who consider themselves superiors, and the ambience that sorrounds them, the stillness that forbids any changes in their sterile mobility towards a betterment of their situation.

’12 Years a Slave’ (2013) is a strong picture because it works, and that might be it’s only function in the end, beyond its beautiful artistry, its aspirations of high art (that sometimes work and sometimes don’t), beyond the performances, it uses all those elements for the final project, the final aim that is that the film works, it makes you see and understand what slavery was, how it worked, how it was nothing short of another market that was in charge of moving products around, but instead of cows or leather, these are human beings that are moved around here and there as if they were traded goods, no more than overpriced cattle (as one of the characters say, and that brings me to one of the few negative points of this movie, is that at times seems like everything that tries to tell you is at times spelt out to you), and the mentality of those who are in the state of slavery seem to don’t mind or don’t care about the state in which they’ve fallen. There seems to be a didactic way in which the movie is structured, but it doesn’t shy away from showing what’s really important in the most artful way possible. Maybe it was Solomon Nurthup’s intention when he wrote his memoirs to be a text that would go beyond his own demise and serve as some kind of testimony to the years and situations that he knew that one day would be over, and what’s better to conserve the identity of a country, a race or the entire planet than tell its past in the most easy and harsh way possible.

The episodic nature of the film might turn off some critics and viewers if they are keen on finding something to criticize, as the movie does seem to go through stages, like a videogame, with minibosses and a final boss, endurance tests and parts where you have to use the habilities or informations that you learnt in previous stages, thinks that will make you advance into a final result, that would be the freedom of the main character. While the comparison may seem something that you might shrug off as simple and way too used when it comes to modern films, it actually speaks a lot about the structure of the movie, and more than anything about the life of Solomon, how his life was like progressing through a bunch of stages, learning and finding out about many of the people that are in the world of slavery and then fight the final form of the boss to be free. If you find that you have problems with that kind of precious architecture of life, you might as well dismiss the real story of Nurthup, as he lived and told it (or decided to tell it) that way and with no further developments. You might say that a movie is a movie and a book is a book, but when your goal making a movie is that the movie works as a statement to the world on how we did things, and how we seem to work nowadays on our own system of mind slavery, I think there’s nothing grown with being loyal to the structure and tale of a book based on a real life.

There’s one scene that speaks loads about this particular element of the film. Solomon Nurthup (now nicknamed Platt by his slavers) has commited a mistake, he has whipped and hurt one of his masters, so he’s hung from his neck, only to be ultimately saved, just to continue to be hanged but resisting the pull of the rope by the tip of his toes, that are still on the slippery ground. The element is present here when the other slaves slowly start walking out of their houses in the background, the shot itself doesn’t move, but we see the constant movement of the feet of Solomon and the people in the background, moving and looking at Northup, seeing the state in which he is in, and then walking off to do something else, either not caring or just too accustomed to the brutalities inflinged on their own people, that they just don’t seem to care anymore about the life of the other, they just want to go on, do their stuff, survive… a telling thing about how we seem to live our lives today, shuffling along and not minding the people that are by our side, not caring about what they do, what they say, what they seem to be suffering, that doesn’t matter to us, because we seem to be enslaved by time, our work, by our own distractions, and this isn’t a statement against the dumbening down of the civilization, this is a statement against the lives we decide to live in which we seem to walk right beside the people that are weak and we don’t mind them if we step over them.

Finally, it’s a movie that seems to do two things that most slavery films do not. First, it takes its time, but not to develop the plot and the characters (though, the time for that is adecuate), but to just stand there and look at the scenery, look at the face of its characters, stand there for a couple of seconds more than necesary just to take it all in, give itself the time to recover from its harsh, deep wounds that lashes onto your soul. And also, the film is a statement on the power of love, how after 12 years a love can still endure, live and prosper, and it seems that the only thing that doesn’t die is the love for the family and for your loved person besides you. That hit me more than anything when the movie ended, even if it didn’t make a fuzz over it, the fact that the wife of Solomon was there, alone, with her sons, says a lot about how much a person can endure and be faithful to the concept of freedom and love.

I hope that this movie wins the big awards of the night. It might not be my favorite in any of them, but it sure is my second choice for everything, and they’re all worthwhile nominations.

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