Oscars pit gravitas of 'Slave' against pull of 'Gravity'

Wed Feb 26, 2014 4:03pm EST
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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - To historian Brenda Stevenson, a scholar on American slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is a masterful cinematic work that achieves more than any other film on slavery, so worthy that she plans to screen it in classes at her university, UCLA.

It's the kind of validation "12 Years a Slave" has been earning from experts, critics, audiences and the film industry for six months now. Even so, the acclaimed drama may falter in the final test, losing out on the most coveted of movie prizes, the Academy Award for best picture.

The film from British director Steve McQueen appears to be the frontrunner for film's highest honor at Sunday's ceremony but has at least three factors conspiring against it: another high-quality, groundbreaking movie called "Gravity," the tricky math of Oscar voting and the film's own brutal depiction of American slavery.

"I think it is a hard film to watch," said Stevenson. "One of the things I think Steve McQueen does extremely well is capture the violence of the institution."

That unflinching portrayal of a real American story, that of the free black man Solomon Northup who is tricked and sold into slavery, may win on the gravitas scale. But sometimes the 6,000-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just want to reward enjoyable entertainment and "Gravity" gives that in spades.

If this year's nine best picture nominees add up to the strongest year for film in recent memory, they also have injected a good dose of uncertainty into Hollywood's biggest night. Voters had a good and varied lot from which to choose, with big successes such as "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," and smaller films "Nebraska" and "Philomena."

"In the 12-13 years that I have been doing this stuff seriously, I can't remember a best picture race in which there was less certainty than there is this year," said Scott Feinberg, awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter.

Over at the other trade publication, Variety, awards editor Tim Gray said that "more than ever, I'm totally flummoxed."   Continued...

Workers roll out the Oscars red carpet during preparations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn