Let’s take a step back and look at the best picture nominees prior to this Sunday’s Academy Awards. We have a heartfelt British film from a respected director and beloved actress in “Philomena.” An emotional and relevant commentary on health care in “Dallas Buyers Club.” There are true stories like “Captain Phillips,” and wholly original ones like “Her.” Top-notch work from respected auteurs like Alexander Payne, Paul Greengrass and Martin Scorsese fill the ranks as well. And yet, none of these stand a shot at winning best picture.
Any other year it would be two of those films duking it out for the crown. But as fate would have it, 2013 will likely be a historic year for the Academy’s as either a film centered on slavery and created by black filmmakers or a science fiction tale is going to win best picture. “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” have paved their way to front-runner status in these final days before the Academy Awards on Mar. 2. Film, and the Oscars, will be better off for it.
At first glance “12 Years” may not seem all that historically significant. A true story of how a man struggled to overcome great odds and fight for his survival, sounds like an Oscar bait movie to me. However, “12 Years” is more than just about one man’s journey, it is about one of the most horrific injustices in human history, slavery. Steve McQueen’s honest portrayal of slavery is a tough watch and brings up the awful truth that America is still less than 200 years removed from it.
A report a few years ago, to no shock, revealed that the Academy is made up of old white men. A win for “12 Years” would show the growth in diversity that the Academy has strived to make since then. It is also worth noting that this would be the first film from a black director to win best picture. 84 white men and a single white woman (Kathryn Bigelow) have helmed best picture winners. Not only that, “12 Years” would feature one of the only casts that was not lead by white actors. “Slumdog Millionaire” is the only other film to truly represent that.
So a win for “12 Years” would be historical beyond the confines of a theater. A win for “Gravity” would not nearly have the same effect to the greater public, but it would send a resounding message through the film world. The Academy has never been overly fond of sci-fi films. It took a long time for Hollywood to see the genre beyond much more than a B-movie. Films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Wars” and “District 9” helped make the genre respectable with the Academy, but none of those films were able to win.
Fantasy was a genre very much in the same position with the Academy for the longest time. That changed however when “Return of the King” tied a record with 11 Academy Awards including best picture. That’s what “Gravity” looks to do now, break the barrier of genre bias at the Academy and open up the door for sci-fi films down the road.
You astute readers are sure to notice that David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” wasn’t mentioned previously above. While it holds the number three spot, it’s chances for a win have severely diminished. The chance to play spoiler is still there, but it will go down as one of the great Oscar upsets (for better or worse) if it knocks off either “12 Years” or “Gravity.”
In all likelihood, though, the 2013 best picture winner is down to a coin flip between “12 Years” and “Gravity.” But do you know what is better than the fact that either way on Sunday history will be made? It is that the historical implications are really just side notes, and that these films are in the position they are because they represented some of the best cinema of the last year. That is why we should really be excited.