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.


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