This is Oscar week but the film most likely to win the Best Picture Award is lagging at the box office.
12 Years a Slave is a film that lingers long after initial viewing. I saw it at TIFF* where it stood out among a blur of very good offerings. Mesmerizing and unsettling in equal measure, the film offered a history lesson sliced open to reveal a shattered heart.
The crowd was sombre at the film’s conclusion but on our feet cheering when director Steve McQueen filed in with the cast. Theirs was a superior achievement, a new classic that diminishes every other movie made prior about slavery.
Five months later and that love in has been eclipsed by avoidance. Word of mouth about the film being “too hard to watch” has caused many to stay away.
Maybe that’s why best supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o has engaged in a media blitz, showing a clear command of an implicit understanding: it isn’t good enough to perform magic on screen. Mastering the red carpet is part of the job and requires its own chops.
Her performance as the young slave Patsey is the emotional core of the film and a master class in acting, startling all the more as this is her big screen debut. Born in Mexico and raised in Nairobi, N’yongo went to Yale to study theatre and got the call to join McQueen’s cast three weeks before graduating.
If my face was wet with tears, it was because of Nyong’o’s shimmering presence. Hers is the trophy to lose and career to watch.
Will these final days leading to Sunday’s telecast draw in bigger audiences? Last month, an ad for the film appeared, saying simply “It’s time”.
Slate writer Aisha Harris wonders if the ad refers to time for a predominately black cast and director to get recognition? If he wins best director, British director Steve McQueen will be the first black man to do so.Time for a renewed look at slavery and ever present entrenched racism? McQueen believes the film is very current.
“The past is absolutely about the present for me.”
Time for filmgoers to shed their fear over troubling themes?
Whenever I see films like this, I recall a high school history teacher I met in line one year at TIFF who told me he likes to use film in his classes to help his students “find a way in” to historical events. For millions around the world, film is their history lesson.
This is that film. It leads you in and asks you not to look away.
On Sunday, we will discover if that time is now.
* For more on the best films of the year, see It’s a wrap.