Much of the world tuned in last night to watch Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes with effortless snark, smoothly spanxed into their evening gowns. Their jokes overflowed like the alcohol that is always the unintended guest of honor at these soirees. With Oscar nomination ballots long since turned in, but final decisions still in flux for the vast number of industry guild voters who, let’s face it, now decide the Oscar race, last night’s winners were announced. There were some big surprises. Spike Jonze winning screenplay for Her. Alex Ebert winning for Original Score for All is Lost. There were some not so big surprises. Jennifer Lawrence winning for American Hustle, while being slightly upstaged on the red carpet by Lupita Nyong’o. Amy Adams presences as the biggest movie star in the Comedy category carried her aloft to Best Actress in that category, before American Hustle took Best Comedy Picture at the Globes. Probably the best line of the night came from Leonardo DiCaprio who, upon winning Best Actor referenced the irony of winning in the comedy category for his magnificent performance in Wolf of Wall Street. Matthew McConaughey finally won something significant after going down this season as the hardest working, least recognized actor in town. He won alongside his supporting co-star Jared Leto. They were one of two pairings of lead and supporting to win. That is going to make the ensemble prize at the SAGs even harder to call.
Alfonso Cuaron became the first Mexican director to win for Gravity, which makes history in and of itself. Cuaron’s win was a breakthrough milestone for Mexican cinema, though there isn’t quite same stigma attached to Latin-American directors, since Babel won, directed by Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Pan’s Labyrinth won many Oscars and it was directed by Mexican-born Guillermo Del Toro. Cuaron himself has had three Oscar nominations. All three of these Mexican filmmakers have had screenplay nominations.
It’s harder for black writers and directors to similarly break through. It has to do mainly with the firewall of the critics. And we should really stipulate that African American directors, or even Latin American directors — that is, when a culture is transplanted into this country their storyline becomes much more narrowly defined. Black history in America goes back to the beginning but what stories has Hollywood chosen to tell beyond slavery, racism and Jim Crow? And even those stories, infrequently. Black storytellers this year have managed to somehow catch the attention of critics, a miracle in and of itself, but the boredom of the white demographic has them all saying, “it wasn’t THAT good. I liked THIS movie better.” The subtext of “liked” often means they can identify with it better, that it struck a chord with their own experience, that it took them somewhere familiar. That isn’t an argument worth having. You can’t convince anyone to like what they don’t like.
Even though almost every pundit, save for a few of us over at Gold Derby, have been predicting 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture, throughout the evening the film was being snubbed at every turn. No screenplay win for John Ridley, who would have been the first African American screenwriter to win the Globe in screenplay. (In fact, only the second black screenwriter ever nominated in Globe history). No wins for Lupita Nyong’o or Chiwetel Ejiofor. The pundits were far too hopeful that this film would wow voters, or that the foreign press would give a damn of the plight of the ongoing story of African American history in the United States. We are the country that must continue to atone for our sins. It also happens to be a subject that seems to bore some voters — perhaps even some critics, like the New York Film Critics or the National Society, for example. Somehow the industry and Oscar voters don’t consider slavery as important a plight as any of the horrors that have plagued their culture, like the Holocaust, for instance. “What’s the problem?” they must wonder as they often do about 12 Years a Slave. “What’s the big deal? Slavery was over a long time ago. Why do we have to keep talking about racism? Why do Hollywood film awards have to factor that in? Can’t we just vote for what we LIKE?” The answer is that it obviously does not matter to many of them: they WILL vote for what they like.
It was looking like 12 Years a Slave was not going to be a picture the HFPA liked until it went and won Best Picture. The Globes split Picture and Director, as it did in 2011. 12 Years a Slave won with no Brad Pitt in sight. (Although if you had to find a reason why it might have won, the chance of seeing Pitt on stage might have been that reason. Maybe he would have thanked Angie and the kids, a Kodak moment to be sure). What was remarkable about watching the final and most important honor of the evening was seeing a black man holding the award for Best Picture, the first time that has ever happened in all 71 years of Golden Globe history.
The image of McQueen on stage, with his mixed-race cast, was almost surreal. This just doesn’t happen. Why doesn’t it? It was the same kind of surreal experience watching Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win the DGA. Most of my colleagues, nearly all of the big city critics, and likely the industry voters do not step back to look at the bigger picture. They choose to let their gut feeling be their guide. They like what they “like.”
If you use Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker as the model for 12 Years a Slave you will find several significant differences. Bigelow, a woman, made a movie about men. She told a universal story (translated as — the story of white men) that could appeal across the board to men and women because she told it, and because of its subject matter. In short, Bigelow passed the litmus test for the kind of filmmakers who earn the admiration of vast amounts of voters. The same cannot be said for Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave. This isn’t a film with universal appeal. It isn’t a film a white man would have made. It is extremely personal, deeply moving, and perhaps most affecting to those whose story has not yet been adequately told but deserves to be.
I sometimes feel like I am caught in Red State hell when I try to argue with people about why 12 Years a Slave, and Steve McQueen, have made the film that ought to be awarded as Best Picture of the Year. It’s the same pushback I got from those who protested Obama’s rise to success as nothing but an example of glorified affirmative action. This, from the same party, the same mentality, that elected George W. Bush twice and drove this country into ruin. Here’s what I say to the critics, to the industry, to the groups that has consistently picked films that are not only unexceptional, not only films that would never stand the test of one year past, let alone of time: Honoring a film like 12 Years a Slave honors the history of film and the future of film, for the doors that it might open, for the people who might be appreciated even if they aren’t your own, for the great achievement of being the best reviewed of the year, one of that tells a true American story born out of another holocaust, a year after another film that made slavery a revenge fantasy won two Oscars to the white people involved — what could be more right?
But we know how this song usually plays. And we play it as it lays. Still, watching McQueen take the stage, seeing how perceptions can shift so suddenly, even though it was only the Hollywood Foreign Press, even though it hasn’t yet been reflected by PGA, or the DGA or the Oscar — it was astonishing. Just to imagine it. Just to see it.
I’ve been Oscar watching since 1999. I used to care only about predicting the Oscars. I watched year after year. Watched films try and fail, try and succeed. I watched what happened to Spike Lee, to Denzel Washington, to Charles Burnett, to Ava DuVernay. Then we saw the door inch open with John Singleton and Lee Daniels. But that opening never widened much, did it? Though Geoffrey Fletcher became the first black writer to win at the Oscars there has yet to be a black director even close. Until now.
I don’t think film awards are ultimately very important to anything or anyone. They give us a chance to celebrate our gods and goddesses. We sit back, arrested by their beauty, wrapped up in their personal dramas, watching them age, or fight aging. Watching them marry and reproduce. Watching them rise and fall. Falling in love with the young ones. Appreciating the old ones who have managed to age like Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep. In the end, though, someone goes home with a statue that sits on their toilet tank. The television goes off. We go to bed. Tomorrow comes — and tomorrow is the same as yesterday.
Hollywood has never really told stories other than those that revolve around the history of the majority. The Oscars have always rewarded films that take that one refrain and play it louder. The Academy likes movies that are told in the vacuum of time, like Argo, like The Artist, like The King’s Speech where there simply isn’t the question of “where are the people of color”? Nostalgia doesn’t ask us to answer for that because, to tell the truth, nobody really wants to know where most African Americans were during the time of The Artist. (It’s not very pretty to think about).
When people ask me to tell them what was so great about 12 Years a Slave it’s easy. I only have to remember the scenes that have stayed with me long after that first screening in Telluride. The scene where Solomon plays his violin to try to dispel the horror playing out as a mother is begging to keep her children together. The scene where Solomon hangs from a tree for a whole day, dangling there, with only his toes straining to keep his neck from breaking. The scene where Solomon thinks about running but comes across a sickening lynching. The film tells a linear story, with a subdued sense of suspenseful conflict. It’s seen by some as not delivering enough retribution, without the sunny redemption of an unconditionally happy ending for all involved. The traces of ambiguity seem to be making the majority demographic uncomfortable. They are not used to choosing such an unconventionally made film for the win. To me, the film, like the Butler, like Fruitvale Station is part of an ongoing story of African American history in America — a story that hasn’t yet been fully told because no one knows how the end will turn out. Generations of black citizens oppressed long after the civil war ended because of Jim Crow laws is another crime against humanity that has yet to be punished.
What is really depressing is how Hollywood has kept those doors closed for so long — all because the majority of voters can’t see the stories of black storytellers as universal appealing enough to win their favor. Something must be done about that.
I still believe that 12 Years a Slave is the film to beat for Best Picture. I believe that, even knowing what I know about people, even knowing that celebrating a bummer isn’t the way you win Oscars in this town. But I also know that a glimpse of what’s possible, just given to us by the HFPA, isn’t so easily dismissed. That in itself is a magnificent thing to celebrate.