In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2013 winner 12 Years a Slave. Is it better than Crash?
It’s tough to get perspective on a Best Picture winner in seven days, but it’s also tough to get perspective on generations of slavery in American history. 12 Years a Slave hasn’t even been crowned for a full week yet, but we have to check everything. How does the most recent winner match up with the supposed worst one ever?
Let’s get this out of the way off the top: 12 Years a Slave is hard to talk about. It’s the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was drugged, kidnapped from New York, and transported into slavery in the American South in 1842. There is no easy way to approach a movie about slavery. It is brutal, violent, cruel, and inhumane. Slavery is the single most difficult topic in American history because it encompasses everything difficult. There is rape, economic subjugation, violence, and dehumanization. The entire story of human suffering in American history can be told through the lens of slavery.
12 Years a Slave handles it masterfully. Everyone in it — save for Brad Pitt, but we’ll get to that — is perfect. It is a hero’s journey told with a passive hero. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is taken into slavery and forced to face the impossible reality of the worst of his time under slavemasters in Louisiana. His tale is gruesome, but the tale of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is even more unimaginable. To tell more is to rob her Oscar-winning debut performance, so let it just be said that her life is harder than the character described in the title of a movie called 12 Years a Slave.
There’s no need to tell people to see 12 Years a Slave or to tell more about what happens in it. It was just named Best Picture. It has the very definition of “heat” right now. It’s a movie about slavery and it’s a damn good one. It’s also a fantastic place from which to approach Crash.
Both movies are about racism. 12 Years a Slave is about the inhumane practice of slavery in America’s history and what it does to a person. Crash is about how people encounter each other in the supposed melting pot of America and don’t like what they find. Both are about institutionalized racism and the failure of the justice system – in the 1840s or the 2000s – to seriously do anything about it.
So why is the movie where the main character is sold into slavery, dehumanized, and beaten somehow the quieter take on the topic? How is the movie with lynchings and rapes… calmer and more reasonable than, well, Crash?
In a way, 12 Years a Slave has an easier point to make: Slavery is bad. Everyone is on board with being against slavery, even though some people would diminish the effects across the world. Not everyone would agree with the aspect of Crash‘s message that racism controls the world. Not everyone would want to see Crash as the supposed sequel, picking up where a biography of a former slave left off.
Crash isn’t a spiritual sequel, though, and not because race has no place in modern film. It isn’t because it tries and fails to make a point. It tries to put modern Los Angeles on display as a false melting pot full of racists, but the world rings false. The true story of 12 Years a Slave shines through and feels like an older version of our own world, for the worse. As an audience we believe this world. We know it is true. We are saddened by the reality of our past. We’re still living in the world of Crash. We know that the world has room to grow to defeat institutionalized racism – but Crash isn’t describing an actual place. It’s describing some high school drama student’s hellscape of humanity that never has and never could exist.
I will pause here to say again that when someone’s manhood is questioned in Crash his response is to get into an armed standoff with the LAPD.
One of the tough things about talking about slavery and racism is that we all generally agree. Every rational person would say they are not a racist. A film like 12 Years a Slave still matters, even in that light, because we must stare into the darkness of men’s souls. Gentleman’s Agreement, a Best Picture winner from half a century previous, is about how even “good” people have darkness, and they must face that darkness and process it or succumb to it. 12 Years a Slave has relative “good” and “bad” slaveowners, but as much as it is about the evils of slavery in one period of America, it is about the darkness of all of us. We may not think of ourselves as capable of slavery, but we watch movies like this to remind ourselves of the starkness of others — and to reinforce the power of evil that we often deny.
The Best Part: The acting award for this movie went to the supporting actress, and she is certainly great in it. Time deserves to remember that some of the other films that stole other awards from this movie — Dallas Buyer’s Club and Gravity were both excellent — earned what they got. The acting (though maybe not better than an AIDS patient battling for his own treatment, he deserved that win) is phenomenal. It never goes over the top, it always works. Except…
The Worst Part: Brad Pitt, plain and simple. He’s a fantastic actor but he just showed up to this one. He delivers a 0/10 accent as a Canadian carpenter willing to help deliver the main character from slavery. 103 of the 134 minutes of the movie happen before he shows up, and those 103 minutes are perfect. People in the 1840s absolutely were not uniform in their view of slavery, but Brad Pitt’s character’s benevolence still just comes off as so damned weird right after a consistent barrage of brutality for 103 straight minutes. He’s also a producer, and the weirdness of heroic Executive Producer Hero Brad Pitt is the only problem with a perfect movie. It’s downright strange.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The fact that these two movies have been now linked by this award is a kind of crime. 12 Years a Slave is surely “Oscar Bait” as they say, but Crash is the definition of “Oscar Bait” that is also not good. This is a good movie that tackles race – Crash is a collection of scenes about race that is only technically a movie and is certainly, insistently, not good.
Image credit: NY Daily News