Worst Best Picture: Is 12 Years a Slave Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

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 CrashThe 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.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |

 Image credit: NY Daily News

Worst Best Picture: Is Gentleman’s Agreement Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

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 1947 winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Is it better than Crash?

The year was 1948. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Doris Day performed at the ceremony. It was only four years after Casablanca‘s win. It was the year that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article, won Best Motion Picture.

It was another time, to be sure. That’s the entire point: Gentleman’s Agreement is about Philip Green (Gregory Peck) becoming “Phil Greenberg” to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in the 40s. He’s new in town, his wife is dead, and he wants to make a big impression at work by taking on a tough assignment. He’s had success in the past by “becoming” the subject of his work, and he figures that writing about being Jewish can only be achieved by, well, “being” Jewish.

After the game is on, his Jewish secretary (who thinks he’s also Jewish) starts a conversation with him about how much she doesn’t like “the wrong type” of Jews. Peck takes her to task for what she expects to be an easy conversation full of slurs and stereotypes. He straight up lectures her on how he can’t stand even internalized racism (she says she even says those things about herself!) or racism against other members of the same group. Gregory Peck being Gregory Peck, this scene works even though it’s pretty broad when he starts listing the slurs he can’t tolerate.

Crash does the same thing, but Crash doesn’t have Gregory Peck. It’s too simple to say that one of the greatest actors in American history is the only difference, but he absolutely is one of them. The rest of it is the proving ground for this whole damn argument: Crash is already a travesty of a Best Picture winner because it already feels like it handled a sensitive subject poorly and it hasn’t even been a decade yet.

Gentleman’s Agreement is nearly 70 years old. The film centers on the idea that it’s difficult to be an “other,” even if you’re just perceived as one. Crash is about nothing but others, but much in the way that a little salt makes beef taste more like beef and a lot of salt makes beef taste like salty garbage, Crash is about ten tons too much.

Gentleman’s Agreement was a controversial film in the 40s. America was still in the business of yelling at people for standing up for minorities of all types (well, we still are, but now we’re at least a little more guarded about it, since there’s no specific government-sanctioned committee for it anymore) and there was a lot of fear of a movie willing to put a spotlight on that.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place when Gregory Peck tries to secure a reservation at a hotel rumored to be “restricted.” He causes a scene in the lobby (insofar as Gregory Peck can “cause a scene” – you really have to see it) and ends up leaving angry with the tacit bigotry of the world.

The movie’s greatest success is that it doesn’t have a lot of people screaming about Nazis or throwing rocks at people in the street. It deals with the quiet racism in people, even supposedly good people. It exists to show that it’s easy to label people in white hoods racists, but it’s hard to face up to smaller, more insidious racism. Peck takes issue with his fiance’s “smaller” bigoted moments, and delivers the should-be Oscar-winning speech:

“But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”

Crash is worried that if someone doesn’t very literally try to murder someone of another race, the audience won’t understand the racial tensions between them. Sandra Bullock’s poor character yells slurs constantly, to the point where she is essentially a See ‘N Say of racial epithets. Crash is like trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t work, but it certainly does make a mess.

Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t exactly using modern tools for that same surgery, but it isn’t trying to deliberately kill the patient. There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.

It must have been that much more difficult seven decades ago (just a few years after Hitler’s death) and the fact that Gentleman’s Agreement is still a solid look at de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation all these years later is astounding. Crash doesn’t understand the basic difference between the two in the first place, so the idea that it could have any nuance is a bridge too far, entirely.

The Best Part: In looking up how people remember Gentleman’s Agreement I’ve found that people take issue with the fact that it came out just after World War II but never really addresses Hitler. It makes the film timeless, because outside of a few of the slurs being completely out of fashion now, this could happen 10 or 20 or 30 years later and be mostly unchanged. It handles tacit racism well.

The Worst Part: That said, it doesn’t go very far beyond that. Blackness comes up twice in the movie (in the form of unacceptable slurs to use) but only in reference. No one ever discusses race beyond Jewishness as present or absent. When Gregory Peck comes out as “not really Jewish” he’s immediately Christian. When his son asks him about different religions he names… three. Baby steps, 1947, but it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashBoth movies supposedly aim to do the same thing. Crash is a failure as a movie, but it only comes across as a failure as a lesson about racism when compared to something that does it well. The ultimate lesson of Crash is that race defines all interactions, at all times, and must always be considered as divisive. The lesson of Gentleman’s Agreement is the most important thing to remember about evil in general: You need to be equally afraid of the person who does nothing to stop it as the person that perpetrates it.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men |

 Image credit: The Telegraph