Why ’12 Years’ is the Oscar frontrunner: Let me count the ways

12 Years a Slave” is full of floggings, lynchings, rape, and other atrocities commited against slaves in the antebellum American South. It seems like that kind of grim subject matter might hold it back at the Oscars, which usually prefer feel-good stories and escapism. But is it really going to be a tough sell? If you consider the films that have won in the past, it actually might be a perfect fit.

It’s sure to be a critics’ darling. Following its festival bows, with a week to go before its theatrical release, it already has a score of 92 on MetaCritic, based on nine reviews, and it’s 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Sometimes the critical consensus matches the tastes of Oscar voters, as it did with “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” in recent years, but usually not so much.

However, consider the numerous factors working in its favor:

1. Heroic story? Check!

The Oscars tend to reward stories about good guys overcoming adversity, whether it’s an Indian boy escaping poverty and getting the girl in “Slumdog Millionaire,” or a CIA agent rescuing American hostages in “Argo.” “12 Years” has such a hero, as well as a built-in happy ending. That’s not a spoiler: Solomon Northup has to get his freedom back so he can write the book on which the film is based.

2. “Important” subject matter? Check!

I put “important” in quotes because I think any great film is important, whether it’s about the Holocaust or horticulture. But Oscars voters usually prefer the former to the latter. That’s why so many war-themed films are nominated (“The Reader,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Letters from Iwo Jima”) and win (“Schidler’s List,” “Hurt Locker,” “King’s Speech”), and why genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and comedy are underrepresented.

“12 Years” is about American slavery. It’s hard to get more “Important” than that; in fact, two of last year’s nominees tackled the same subject, though in very different ways: “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.”

3. Accessible style? Check!

This is the biggest surprise coming from director Steve McQueen, whose previous two films, “Hunger” and “Shame,” were embraced by the art-house crowd but were too esoteric for a wide audience. “12 Years,” on the other hand, is more straightforward in its narrative style, which is a definite plus; while Oscar voters often prefer films with artistic pretenses (like the silent-film revival “The Artist“), they usually only vote for movies they understand (sorry, “Tree of Life“).

4. Great production values? Check!

The reason the film with the most nominations usually wins Best Picture is that the films Oscar loves tend to be lavish productions with impressive technical elements: costumes, sets, cinematography, music, makeup, and so on. “12 Years,” in recreating the 19th century American South, is a strong contender in many of those fields.

5. Timely themes? Check!

Racial justice is on the forefront of American conversation in the Obama era, especially following the Trayvon Martin murder trial, and a trio of Oscar hopefuls this year represent a virtual trilogy of the black experience: slavery in “12 Years,” the civil rights movement in “The Butler,” and the 21st century murder of an innocent teen in “Fruitvale Station.” Of those three “12 Years” is the likeliest to carry the torch at the Oscars, for the reasons above and below.

6. An opportunity to make history? Check and check!

Only two black directors have ever been nominated at the Oscars (John Singleton and Lee Daniels). None has won. Because Hollywood loves any opportunity to pretend it’s more inclusive than it really is – like when they patted themselves on the back for honoring the first woman in the category, Kathryn Bigelow, after 81 male winners – they might rally around McQueen in part to right that wrong.

But not only that, “12 Years” would be the first Best Picture winner told from an exclusively black point-of-view. “Crash” featured several minority actors, but it was an ensemble film without a single protagonist. “In the Heart of the Night” and “Driving Miss Daisy” both had black leads, but also white co-leads, and it was the white stars who ended up winning Oscars for those films: Rod Steiger in “Heat” and Jessica Tandy in “Miss Daisy.” Sidney Poitier wasn’t even nominated for “Heat.”

With those factors working in its favor, what could stand in the way of a “12 Years” win – other than, of course, the films that still remain to be seen this Oscar season? It’s violent, which could turn off squeamish voters, but only one scene is especially graphic. Overall, it’s far less violent than “Django Unchained.” And because the violence has an important historical context – as it did in “Schindler’s List” – voters might suck it up and vote for it anyway; it’s hard to watch, but it’s good for you!

That leaves the question of money. Though a film needn’t be a blockbuster to win Best Picture, it almost always needs to be a financial success, even if only a modest one (“Crash,” “No Country,” “The Artist”). Could an unflinching film about slavery keep viewers away?

Possibly, but this time last year it seemed unlikely that “Lincoln” – a dry, talky film about congressional procedure – would be the smash hit it turned out to be. And how many would have guessed “The King’s Speech,” a historical drama about stuttering, would make almost half a billion dollars worldwide? Though Oscar contenders aren’t usually popcorn entertainments, they can be event movies in their own right and draw surprisingly large crowds. Opening on October 18, right on the heels of its buzz-building festival appearances, “12 Years” has the potential to be such an event.


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