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Why 12 Years a Slave should clean up at the Oscars

Victory for Lupita Nyong'o, Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor would herald a new era in black cinema

Small revolutions sometimes take the most surprising appearances. Take Lupita Nyong’o:

Doe eyes, high cheekbones, teeny-weeny afro, perfectly-shaped and muscular body enhanced by sleeveless coloured dresses… The 31-year-old actress could be just one very pretty girl among so many others in Hollywood. But after only one feature as an actress, she’s already more. Really more. Because for her first real step in the film industry – she only just graduated from Yale School of Drama – she’s been recruited for one of the toughest possible roles by Steve McQueen, a director who explores human embodiment in the most brutal and visceral way (as he proved with his first two features Hunger and Shame).

In 12 Years A Slave, Nyong’o is Patsey, a very young slave working hard in the plantations in Louisiana. She’s also an object of fixation for Master Epps (Michael Fassbender), a believer in white supremacy and a lunatic who doesn’t understand his magnetic attraction for this black girl, and makes her pay for the desire she arouses in the cruellest ways.

“Patsey is a simple girl who just tries to get through her pain with dignity, despite her slave condition" - Lupita Nyong’o

In a staggering ten-minute sequence shot, Patsey, who already has been raped, is tied to a tree naked while her jealous master whips her, accusing her of having an affair with another slave owner. It would be tempting for a beginner to just sentimentalize the desperation and pain of such character, but Nyong’o never does that. She keeps it simple because, as she says, “Patsey is a simple girl who just tries to get through her pain with dignity, despite her slave condition”.

No wonder Steve McQueen was immediately drawn to her when he met her for the first time, as he explained to French magazine Positif: “To find our Patsey we auditioned thousands of candidates… Like if we were looking for Scarlett O’Hara! When I discovered her face I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s interesting and provocative that McQueen mentions Scarlett: the Gone With the Wind heroine, played by Vivien Leigh, popularized the Southern Belle imagery and an idyllic vision of what was life in the plantations. 12 Years A Slave, on the other hand,  faces up to the true and truly monstrous aspects of slavery in America.

Paradoxically, it’s for her part in that same film that Hattie McDaniel (who plays Mammy) became the first black person, male or female, to win an Academy Award in 1939, in this case for Best Supporting Actress. After McDaniel, only four black women have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress – Whoopi Goldberg in 1990 for Ghost, Jennifer Hudson in 2006 for Dreamgirls, Mo’Nique in 2009 for Precious and Octavia Spencer in 2011 for The Help, Halle Berry being the only one awarded Best Actress in 2011 for her part in Monster’s Ball. 

Lupita Nyong’o could well become the sixth black woman receiving the Academy Award in this category. Oscar voters love familiar faces, and Lupita is up against Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence. But so far, Nyong’o has played the promotion tour game to perfection, answering every single question with bright smiles and a contagious laugh. 

“I’m a black filmmaker. I must be. When I think of characters, or rather, when characters come to me... overwhelmingly they are black" - Filmmaker Barry Jenkins

Hopefully, Nyong’o will have the opportunity to share the joy of victory with her whole crew. 12 Years A Slave, named Best Drama at the Golden Globe Awards, also received 9 Oscar nominations (Gravity and American Hustle get 10 each). Both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender give stunning performances and deserve to be named Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. But one of the many reasons to consecrate McQueen as Best Director is that he may have shot the most important movie about the slave era in America.

Of course there have been films on this topic, but mostly following two trends embodied by two terrific movies released in 2011: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, condemning Southern racism by advocating American democracy and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which recycled the explosive codes of blaxploitation movies for the 2000s. So we have white men fighting for the black ones (see Amistead) or the bloody odysseys of black men (Buck and the Preacher and The Legend of Nigger Charley, to name a few).

But what about black people fighting for themselves? It first happened on TV in the 1970s with John Korty’s Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and the now-cult television miniseries Roots, which depited the daily life of several generations of an enslaved African-American family, starting in Gambia, West Africa, in 1750, where Gambians were captured to be sold as slaves, and concludes during post-Civil War United States, over 100 years later.

Steve McQueen is the first director to bring this matter on big screen. Does it mean you need to be black to make such vital work? Not necessarily, but McQueen’s parents happen to be from Grenada and he traces his ancestry back to Ghana. And it’s also interesting to notice how a new generation of directors is bringing up their African roots as a vital source of inspiration of their work.

Barry Jenkins, who directed the well-received indie film Medicine for Melancholy (featuring a romance in the Museum of African Diaspora), explained it very clearly to the New York Times: “I’m a black filmmaker. I must be. When I think of characters, or rather, when characters come to me — as the best ones do, outside of conscious thought — overwhelmingly they are black. And when I introduce these characters and films into the production framework of this industry, the funding and distribution ‘restrictions’ I’m met with as a result of those characters’ blackness would remind me, if it weren’t clear already, that I am indeed black.” Jenkins is now developing a project about a group of black radicals running from the 60s through today. 

Let’s also mention Andrew Dosunmu, whose Mother of George (which premiered at Sundance last year) is a family drama set in the Nigerian community in Brooklyn. Or Dee Rees, another Sundance darling, mentored by Spike Lee, whose first feature, Pariah tells the story a 17-year-old African-American girl embracing her identity as a lesbian. Ask her who influenced her creative spirit, she would tell you about Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and activist Alice Walker…

Blackness is a central topic in the work of Rees, Jenkins and Dosunmu: characters struggle to reconcile their African-American identities with the very white world they live in; they question what “black love” can be or should be… But blackness is also just another element in their storytelling: those films tell universally gripping stories of characters who happen to be black. As Dosunmu says, they’re just different voices in the immigrant’s tale of the cities where they’re set. 

Of course it’s the mission of a temple of indie cinema like Sundance to bring out new voices like Dosunmu or Rees. But if we want those voices to enjoy a proper echo, the next step should be an official recognition by the film establishment. Rewarding 12 Years a Slave at the 86th Oscar ceremony in March could be the liberating impulsion the film industry is waiting for.