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The State of the Race: Hope is the Thing with Feathers

“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

There is a scene in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave when Solomon Northup is recognized by one of the white people who knew him as a free man. “What is your name?” He is asked. His name is the only thing that has come to matter for that film this year. It is the reason Steve McQueen has been killing himself to help publicize the movie – committed to bringing the novel to classrooms, it is the reason Brad Pitt initially wanted to tell this story, and it is the thing that has brought screenwriter John Ridley to tears every time he’s talked about his experience writing the film. A name is something free people take for granted — but a name like Solomon Northup was too easy to forget for too long.

Has there ever been a year like this one where one movie keeps winning Best Picture but not Best Director? Not even the DGA? Certainly not the BAFTA who took the compromise route of putting Gravity in for Best British Film and having it win there (mais bien sur). Let’s look at it, shall we?

You can’t really count the Critics Choice, or the BAFTA because one is too recent and one changed their dates as to render them not a precursor. We can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no split like this one has occurred since those awards bodies factored into the race. So we are talking more about the Golden Globes, the DGA and the Oscar.


Fact #1 – no two films have ever tied the PGA before.
Fact #2 – Only the PGA and Oscar use the preferential ballot with more than 5 nominees (not BAFTA, not Globes, not Critics Choice).
Fact #3 – no film directed by, written by and starring black filmmakers has ever come this close to winning Best Picture
Fact #4 – If the awards precursors hope to influence the Academy into picking 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture and very little else — by the looks of it that is exactly how it might go down — then you’re looking to go all the way back to 1936 when Mutiny on the Bounty won a single Oscar for Best Picture while John Ford’s The Informer won Director and three other Oscars. Or you could go with 1940s Rebecca, which won two Oscars including Best Picture against John Ford again with Grapes of Wrath, which won 2.
Fact#5 – There is precedent for a film under a preferential ballot to win Best Picture without Director or any other major awards. It has happened before, albeit a very long time ago. In recent times, however, you’d have to find for a repetitive trend to split as this has been, where picture and director have gone to two different movies. I suspect that it has never occurred, not ever. But let’s see.

What I found in my research is rather staggering. Twice before in Globes/DGA/Oscar history there been a split vote that was repeated across the board.

1967 – In the Heat of the Night wins the Globe and Oscar for Picture/Mike Nichols wins the Globe for Director, the DGA and Oscar
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy wins the Globe and Oscar for Picture / Oliver Stone wins Director for Born on the Fourth of July (but Bruce Beresford was not nominated for Director)
2013 – 12 Years a Slave wins Picture at Globe (people presume also Oscar) / Alfonso Cuaron wins the DGA and Director Oscar.

Here are a few key differences in the years, before we talk about the similarities. The difference with 1989 is that Driving Miss Daisy was the popular crowd-pleaser while Born on the Fourth of July the more difficult/challenging film. Another big difference is that obviously Bruce Beresford was not even nominated so they didn’t opt out of choosing him as they did Norman Jewison.

The New York Film Critics gave their director prize to Mike Nichols for The Graduate. They gave Best Picture to In the Heat of the Night — once again, the agreeable compromise split. But this year, they gave their director prize to Steve McQueen and their picture to American Hustle. In 1989, the New York Film Critics had nothing to do with the Oscar race for Best Picture.

But really, you’re looking more at 1967 than any other year. 2013 mirrors 1967 for two significant reasons. One, there was an agreed upon consensus split that Nichols would win director because The Graduate was a “better movie” or more well liked or more relatable or more moving or more culture defining for the then (and now) target demo. But In the Heat of the Night was culturally important. I had been looking for a dynamic that matched this year in a split vote scenario but could not find one until I landed on 1967. Even then there were complaints about the movie “only winning because…” Even now people complain that The Graduate was better or Bonnie and Clyde better. To my mind, those are films that don’t need a gold statue to validate them: their brilliance is far beyond what the Oscar race can do. In the Heat of the Night’s win was significant in so many respects — for one thing, Sidney Poitier is seen slapping a white man. Think about what was happening then. It was 1967 — one year before RFK and Martin Luther King were shot, right smack in the middle of the violent desegregation in the South. How the Oscars, and the awards community back then, ever got their shit together to award such a timely, vital, and yes, important (with or without the quotes) film is staggering.

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Nonetheless, it is not a big leap to say that In the Heat of the Night and 12 Years a Slave are two films that deal with the race. The big difference? Norman Jewison was very much an A-lister and a white director.

The three films made by black filmmakers this year each had honorable intentions. Lee Daniels’ The Butler hoped to help educate younger audiences about the civil rights arc, one that continues in many parts of the US. My good friend Michael who has been staying with me in North Hollywood had someone scrawl on his brand new car the other day “get out of my neighborhood, piece of shit N*gger.” And that is right here in sunny California, in a mostly liberal enclave. To pretend that race isn’t an issue here in the US is to pretend that poverty isn’t an issue. Ryan Coogler wanted to tell Oscar Grant’s story from the everyday life of a typical African American young man in the US. Both of these films deal with the defining point: you are always going to be prejudged by the color of your skin.

But this is the game of Oscar. The Oscar race could give a rat’s ass about such things. Leave politics out of it, they say. Film critics have been mostly defensive when the issue of race comes up — they being almost exclusively a white voting body — as if voting against 12 Years a Slave was, for them, a badge of honor because it meant they were judging the film solely on merit oblivious to its potential social impact or what a win for that film would really mean both to the history of the Oscars and to perception in America overall.

There is buried resentment in anything that smells remotely like affirmative action. Resentment that minorities are taking “our” spots in colleges just because they’re minorities. Resentment that 12 Years a Slave might win just because a black man directed it and they want to make history. But to my mind, I don’t know how you add all of that up and come out the other side not wanting to vote for 12 Years a Slave, the least thing about its win is that it would make history — which, by the way, it would not do simply because of who wrote, directed and starred in it but first and foremost because of what it’s about: honoring an AMERICAN hero.

Films like that, though, don’t usually win Oscars. 12 Years has had to deflect its own merit since its awards run began, once Kyle Buchanan pronounced that it would win Best Picture that sent many of the major critics scattering, not wanting to have their choice for Best Picture decided for them, despite 12 Years being the best reviewed film of the year (with Gravity a very close second). It was compounded further by the memes that traveled alongside it — it was “torture porn” or “it’s only about slavery is bad.” Suddenly, the best-reviewed film of the year began to lose steam.

The rumor that BAFTA voters were going to go whole hog for 12 Years was being floated around on various film sites. Kris Tapley at In Contention spoke to someone who said the Brits were putting all of their weight behind it. This notion ballooned to such significant proportions that almost ALL of the pundits at Gold Derby had 12 Years winning multiple awards, including Best Supporting Actress (instead they picked Jennifer Lawrence, mais bien sur), Adapted Screenplay (they picked Philomena), Actor (the pundits got that one right) and Picture (ditto). They assumed that the film would be rewarded as that early buzz indicated and when it didn’t the film suddenly looked much more like a loser and less like a winner. That is how these things go, my friends. The awards race is about perception — if you can get a handle on perception you can control the race.

But let’s not ever kid ourselves what all of this is really about. You know it once the year has come to a close, when the lights come up to reveal the discarded debris, the half eaten popcorn, the spilled coke, the crumpled speeches, the lost earring, the lipstick stained napkins. The pretty people have fled the scene, removed the injurious heels and sewn-on dresses, showered out the lacquer in their hair, and with no one else around can begin again to feel like human beings. They are sometimes seen wolfing down burgers, finally allowed to ingest fattening food. The perception of who they have to be slowly melts away. We go home with that tiny burst of happiness floating around somewhere inside. It takes us to dreamland where our hands can sometimes touch the stars.

There is another side to this bizarre scene, however. The part that opens doors and doesn’t close them. The chance that maybe this year things might be different. The Academy has split with the consensus before, awarding both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington on the same night when no one thought they would. In those private moments of voting enough of them said — you know what? I’m going to use my vote for something that actually matters for once. No one even thinks about the Oscars after they’re over. People barely remember what won the following year. Does anyone care if we underline something that has already been bolded? What does any of it mean? In those moments they know that their vote really counts for something. Not nothing. But those moments are few and far between. This race is about perception — being on the side that’s winning, feeling the uplift of belonging to something greater than ourselves.

Emily Dickinson wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Hope is the thing that brings so many readers here who love Alfonso Cuaron and Gravity and want to see it richly rewarded because if that film is rewarded that means something to them — it means their favorite was given a prize and that means their feelings were validated by a group they admire. Everybody wins. Hope is the thing that keeps David O. Russell making movies that do so well with the awards community until that very last second. Hope is the thing that drives screaming fans to line up at premieres and at the Oscars in hopes of getting a glimpse of one of their idols. Hope is the thing that drove James Schamus to inspire and deliver great movies to the Oscar race for his ten year reign. Hope is the reason Ellen Page came out, and it’s the reason The Weinstein Co. backed two films by African American directors this year — and then to be considered a “failure” by many for not reaching the end zone. Hope is not a shameful thing. It is a beautiful thing. It is the thing that makes me wake up every morning for fifteen years and look at the Oscar race like every day is a new day. Ah, but hope is also the thing with feathers, so fragile to weather such a mighty storm.

Current predictions in the majors

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Best Editing: Captain Phillips
Best Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Score, Visual Effects: Gravity
Production Design & Costume: The Great Gatsby
Foreign: The Great Beauty
Doc: The Act of Killing
Animated Feature: Frozen
Song: Let it Go, Frozen