by K.M. Zahrt
In “Best Picture Nominations: Micro-Reviews, Part 1,” I made the prediction that 12 Years a Slave or Dallas Buyers Club would win this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. Now, having viewed seven of the nine nominated films, I’m willing to double down on that prediction. I have not yet viewed Nebraska or Philomena because they are no longer showing at theaters in my area and won’t be released on DVD until the end of February. I will review them at that time.
In terms of entertainment value, Captain Phillips left little to be desired. I was engrossed in the story for the full 134 minutes — 134 minutes? Was it really that long? — and, thereby, thoroughly entertained. It was dramatic. It was suspenseful. Tom Hanks was great, of course. Overall, it was a fun and satisfying film-viewing experience. However, if Gravity (as mentioned in Part 1) could be criticized for being nothing more than a thrill ride and lacking depth, Captain Phillips should generate the same response. In that regard, I would argue Gravity provided more intellectually and emotionally to reflect upon. As a result, Captain Phillips probably has even less of a chance at winning. Other than the media-friendly story about how Barkhad Abdi and his friends from Minnesota found themselves playing Somali pirates in the film, I saw little-to-no reason for this nod. It’s a fun film. Watch it. Enjoy it. But don’t bet the farm on it.
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club has the look and feel of a winner. It has the kind of heart-string-pulling, underdog story that describes so many past winners. In a way I can’t explain, this film feels related to past winners like Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), perhaps even a cousin to Rocky (1976). Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) and Rayon (Jared Leto) are round characters, essentially human with all of their virtues and all of their flaws. And the acting by McConaughey and Leto is worth the respective Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations. On the other hand, Jennifer Garner’s performance — the film’s most noticeable weakness — often fell flat. There were two easily identifiable scenes in which her acting rose to the occasion; the rest of her scenes were middling. I would vote for this film to win its Best Original Screenplay nomination as well, although to be fair, I have not yet seen Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine or Bob Nelson’s Nebraska.
12 Years a Slave
I believe this is the strongest overall film out of the seven nominees that I’ve seen, although even as I type, a debate begins to form in my mind, bringing Dallas Buyers Club back into the conversation. Story, acting, directing, soundtrack — 12 Years a Slave has it all in spades.
The film has sparked a debate about our nation’s current state of racial issues, which is far from being settled. The talk has suggested this film is a kind of “white guilt” provocateur. For example, Orville Lloyd Douglas wrote in The Guardian that it was “created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves. Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know.” I don’t believe this film was intended to “engender white guilt,” nor do I believe it should for the exact same reason he mentions in the latter statement. There shouldn’t be anything surprising about the depiction of the treatment of slaves in this film, and if anything, we know that it could have been even more violent without losing historical accuracy. But, that aside, I did learn something. I learned of the true story of Solomon Northup — a story that, I would argue, there’s value in telling.
Douglas goes on to ask: “Why doesn’t anyone want to see more contemporary portrayals of black lives?” I think Douglas and I would both agree on this point. We would be better off taking a closer look our at contemporary lives and striving for equality and for the fair treatment of all, rather than harping needlessly on a part of our nation’s past that nobody alive today experienced. This is not to say there aren’t racial injustices today. There are. And this is not to say that slavery in America did not impact the course of history that has led to the living conditions, treatment, and opportunities available for today’s minorities. It has. However, I don’t think this film has to be viewed as needless harping. I don’t think Douglas’ point has to change the beauty or the value of telling this story.
In many ways, this film reminds me of the stunning, little novel Family by J. California Cooper, and several books by Toni Morrison. I know Morrison has had to field similar questions about white guilt, and I would guess Cooper has had to as well. Here’s the thing: Can’t I simply appreciate these stories as the works of art that they are without being subjected to meta-textual politics and being accused of exorcising white guilt, especially in regards to behavior I took no part in, which happened hundreds of years ago? Unfortunately, I suspect the answer is no. Ask Salman Rushdie how that works. The film, in fact, is a complicated tale about the trials and triumphs that Solomon Northup experienced. Even he, the protagonist, would not escape without some justifiable guilt on his hands. But we have to keep living until we die, don’t we, Salman?
Lastly, I could’ve done without the Brad Pitt appearance. Although he was a producer of the film, someone should have had the sense to recommend a lesser-known or unknown actor for his role. His appearance instantly took me out of the story.