The Screen Actors Guild Awards are taking place as I write, and Lupita Nyong’o has just deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s slavery epic 12 Years a Slave. In her acceptance speech she thanked McQueen for “taking a flashlight under the floorboards of this country and showing us what we are standing on”. For me, this sums up the message we should take from McQueen’s third (yes, only his third) feature-length film; it is a film which needed to be made in order to prevent the fortunate of today (myself included) from luxuriating in the present and forgetting the atrocities (there is no better word) both the UK and the US were involved in.
In the wake of Lincoln and Django Unchained’s awards success last year, it would be easy to suppose a film about slavery is deliberately posturing for recognition, and I might have been guilty of thinking this before I saw it.
12 Years a Slave is alienating in several ways, most obviously in the scenes of slaves being whipped, especially that in which Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is near-forced into beating Patsey on behalf of slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who missed out to Jared Leto a few minutes ago). Of course this isn’t easy to watch, but nor should it be. As Nyong’o has recognised, McQueen’s film is important because it unflinchingly presents horrible truths many would rather ignore and puts them into a cinematic context where we are forced to confront them.
I’m impressed with a recent tendency (last year, and it seems to be continuing this year) of awards bodies to recognise young and emergent talent. After her breakthrough in the acerbic Winter’s Bone (2010), Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar nomination is an excellent case in point. The fact that she can be beaten just two years later (and one year after her Oscar and Golden Globe wins for Silver Linings Playbook) by another rising star is a mark of progress for awards’ ceremonies sometimes critiqued for their conservatism. And this is the reason why, although she was both fabulously heartbreaking and witty and note-perfect throughout Stephen Frears’ Philomena, I’d rather not see Judi Dench take home another trophy. Or Meryl Streep for that matter. My vote would be for Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, a performance praiseworthy, credible and memorable enough to be remembered despite the film’s nomination-distant release date. Oh, I’m such a cynic.