Is ’12 Years a Slave’ the new ‘Lincoln’?

On one hand, “12 Years a Slave” has had a great few weeks in the awards derby, leading at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards with the most nominations, cementing it as a major player at the Oscars. But is anyone else having a troubling feeling of deja vu? This is exactly what happened to “Lincoln” last year before “Argo” stole its thunder at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, while “Life of Pi‘s” Ang Lee upset Steven Spielberg for Best Director.

“12 Years” and “Lincoln” are both about slavery, yes, but that’s really the least of their similarities. Consider also: the films earned the exact same number of SAG nominations (four), Golden Globe nominations (seven), and Critics’ Choice nominations (13). At each of those events, they earned nominations in the exact same categories — even the baker’s dozen at Critics’ Choice match perfectly.

Both films have been held back by the perception that they’re more homework than entertainment. With “Lincoln” I happen to think that’s true, with its long, dry speeches and devotion to congressional procedure (like C-SPAN in powdered wigs). “12 Years,” by contrast, I really believe is a masterpiece, a passionate recreation of history that absorbs the viewer into its horrors and eventual triumph.

Okay, that’s just a matter of taste. Critics loved both of them, though neither won top honors from the Los Angeles or New York critics’ groups.

There’s one major difference in how the two films performed, and it certainly doesn’t help “12 Years”: “Lincoln” made a lot more money, $182 million domestically. That’s five times more than “12 Years,” though the current film still has a chance to add to its total with its re-release on January 17, the day after Oscar nominations are announced.

Looking beyond the films themselves, even their chief competition is similar. “Lincoln” eventually lost to “Argo,” about US government agents pulling off an implausible con to save Iranian hostages. This year, “American Hustle” is kind of like that, except its con artists aren’t as heroic as in Ben Affleck‘s film.

Meanwhile, “Life of Pi” upset to win Best Director. That was a technically audacious story about a lone survivor using his wits to survive in the middle of nowhere. This year, that’s “Gravity.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that “Lincoln” wasn’t completely ignored. It won Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis and Best Production Design. If the Oscars do reject “12 Years” in the top races, there’s still a chance it’ll get a consolation prize or two, maybe for lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor or breakout supporting star Lupita Nyongo. It’s also lucky to have the Adapted Screenplay race more or less to itself, with “Hustle” and “Gravity” both competing as original scripts.

Better that than for “12 Years” to end up like another Spielberg film: “The Color Purple,” also a story about blacks in the American South, which was the victim of a notorious shutout in 1985, tying the Oscar record of 11 losses and zero wins.


8 thoughts on “Is ’12 Years a Slave’ the new ‘Lincoln’?

  1. I completely agree with you. This is just my opinion, but I thought Lincoln was very tedious, a bit boring, and a bunch overrated. 12 Years on the other hand completely held me throughout the entire film–both times I saw it. I really hope the Academy doesn’t pass it over on Oscar day, especially for American Hustle (which I thought to be a bit sloppy).

  2. I loved Lincoln. It’s not the kind of film you want to watch again and again, but it is richly written and features three excellent performances among a brilliant ensemble. Argo was such nothing by comparison. A clever real-life story and undeniably easier viewing, but nothing brilliant, either in the writing or the filmmaking, and the story wasn’t that important either. 12 Years a Slave is certainly more “cinematic” than Lincoln and less sentimental. I think it could lose if voters find themselves unmoved thinking back to Roots; 12 Years actually reminds me a bit of Brokeback Mountain (and Pi), where it is easy to argue that this is artistically the best film of the year, and should handily win Best Director, but Best Picture is a toss-up because the characters are portrayed at arm’s length. However, the Academy will likely not want to deny this important and well made film the top awards, especially a year after Django Unchained, which was silly even on its own merits.

  3. Argo only won by default ; they tried to chose Lincoln but found it a bit historically highbrow , dry and rather tedious …..they couldn’t resist Argo’s siren song and ode to Hollywood saving the day

    12YAS is no Lincoln , it’s neither dry , tedious nor too wordy ….furthermore , 12YAS has won many best picture accolades whereas Lincoln won virtually none , but won awards primarily due to Danielday Lewis as best actor ….you could see from the critics awards that they were having trouble giving Lincoln best picture , but there is no such reluctance with 12YAS….and then there is NYONGO who has won almost as many accolades in the BSA category

  4. It was Rex Reed who first tipped us off when he called Lincoln a ”colossal bore ”…he also tipped us off about GRAVITY when he called it ”popcorn eating fun ” and gave it 75 at metacritic …he awarded 12YAS a 100

  5. “Lincoln” was well-acted but it was an overall dry, tedious film that killed any chances with the voters. “12 Years a Slave” is masterful; I think this film really does have that out-of-the-body experience of seeing something so heartbreaking yet incredible in its portrait.

    I don’t think this will be deja vu. Considering that “12 Years” is just something you can’t ignore.

  6. If “12 Yrs” is the new “Lincoln”, then what is the new “Argo”? I don’t think “American Hustle” fills that bill. It’s not Hollywood self-congratory; it’s not historical; and it’s not pro-American. I’ve always suspected that “12 Yrs” would be “upset” due to the fact that it’s just too hard/numbing to watch without the “Roots” earthiness. But it was very cinematic unlike the speechy “Lincoln”. Besides, “12” is the far and away the biggest frontrunner in BP accolades from critics, something “Lincoln” never had. In the end, even though it’s such a tough film, I think it will be just too undeniable.

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