By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Was it ultimately a race about race?
The best picture Oscar is meant to honor the year’s greatest achievement in film, and 12 Years a Slave had no shortage of supporters before winning the top honor Sunday. But for all the film’s artistry, the undercurrent of many 12 Years a Slave conversations hinged on race and how Hollywood has for decades given short shrift to one of the most inglorious chapters in the nation’s history.
The film’s distributor anchored its awards campaign around the line “It’s time,” easily interpreted as an attempt to exhort members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into voting for the movie because it was the right thing to do.
The film’s director, British filmmaker Steve McQueen, said repeatedly during the long awards season that Hollywood appeared more comfortable making Holocaust movies than slavery stories. And in her opening monologue, Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres even joked that if McQueen’s telling of the enslavement of Solomon Northup didn’t take the top Academy Award, voters could be branded as “racists.”
Whether or not Oscar voters were motivated by fear of looking racially insensitive, or to correct a perceived historical wrong, can never be known. But one top Oscar strategist said that Academy Awards voters have a long history of honoring movies that take on the subject of race relations.
“Look at ‘A Soldiers Story,’ ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ ‘Ray,’ ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and ‘Sounder,’” said Tony Angellotti, reeling off the names of films that collectively garnered 30 Oscar nominations with nine wins. “This kind of socially aware vote for a movie that spotlights racism is rooted in the academy’s DNA.”
All the same, two Oscar voters privately admitted that they didn’t see 12 Years a Slave, thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film’s social relevance, they felt obligated to do so.