‘12 Years’ Enjoys a Seemingly Narrow Victory

By Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply on MARCH 3, 2014—
“Hollywood made history on Sunday night — barely.

The best picture victory by “12 Years a Slave” at the 86th Academy Awards finally handed cinema’s most prestigious prize to a movie by a black filmmaker, in this case, the British-born Steve McQueen. But the triumph, which found Mr. McQueen dancing happily onstage, had all the earmarks of a true squeaker.

“No one will ever know the margin, but it certainly was not an easy win,” said Stephen Gilula, a president of Fox Searchlight, which released “12 Years a Slave.” “It was really a tossup right until the end.”

Perhaps because “12 Years a Slave” arrived at the ceremony without the air of historic inevitability, Mr. McQueen came across as a bit timid about seizing his place in the history books. When the best picture envelope was opened, the first to speak was one of the film’s white producers, the already famous Brad Pitt.

When Mr. McQueen did speak — before 43 million viewers, a 6.4 percent increase over last year’s TV audience — he did not immediately address the weight of what had just happened: Out of 500 films nominated for best picture over the years, his was the first black-directed winner. Instead, he thanked his publicist and numerous other people who dragged the film across the finish line, perhaps inadvertently exposing the puffings and wheezings of a six-month campaign.

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Steve McQueen on ’12 Years a Slave’

The director spoke with Melena Ryzik of The Times on the red carpet before the Oscars, where his film was named best picture of the year.

“I think he was overwhelmed,” Mr. Gilula said by telephone on Monday morning.

Going into the night, a lot of professional awards strategists privately said they expected best picture to go to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” That space thriller ended up winning seven Oscars, leaving “12 Years a Slave,” a period drama about a free black man kidnapped into slavery, with unusually light voter support. Mr. McQueen’s film won three Oscars; he notably lost best director to Mr. Cuarón.

Best director and best picture almost always win as a pair, with some high-profile exceptions. Francis Ford Coppola, for instance, lost the directing prize the year his “Godfather” took best picture. So there was no particular shame in Mr. McQueen’s slight. But the split was one more indicator of the presumably narrow margin by which “12 Years a Slave” won Hollywood’s highest honor.

Speaking to reporters backstage, Mr. McQueen at first sidestepped a question about his film’s historic win, deferring to Mr. Pitt. Another reporter tried again, more squarely asking Mr. McQueen to address being the first black director to win best picture. “Obviously, it’s a mark of development,” he said.

“12 Years a Slave,” based on a memoir that was first published in the mid-19th century, tells the story of Solomon Northup. Mr. Northup, who lived in New York, was abducted and sold into slavery, spending years on Southern plantations before ultimately winning his freedom. The book — “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana” — became a staple piece of Abolitionist literature and then fell into obscurity, but in recent years has been revived by scholars.

Seventy-five years after “Gone With the Wind” won best picture, how important was it to Mr. McQueen to have the Academy recognize a film that depicted slavery from a very different perspective? “It’s just obviously a progression,” he said. “The background characters are now in the foreground.” 

John Ridley, who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “12 Years a Slave,” becoming only the second black writer to receive that honor (Geoffrey Fletcher was the first, for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”), was a bit more willing to reflect. “I’m very proud, I’m very humbled, and I’m very hopeful for the future,” he said. “I may only be the second, but I know there are so many people out there of so many different kinds of stripes, faiths and orientations that have stories to tell.”

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Backstage at the 2014 Oscars; Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black Oscar winner in 1940, for her supporting role in “Gone With the Wind,” the number of black nominees and winners in all categories has reached a total of about 125. The Academy has recently honored performers like Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer and has strained to include more blacks, Hispanics and Asians in its membership. But change has come slowly, as many of the Hollywood disciplines — particularly film directing — continue to be dominated by white men.

Rather than reveling in the achievement of “12 Years a Slave,” Hollywood and the Internet quickly lit up instead with chatter of a perceived spat between Mr. Ridley and Mr. McQueen. Neither man thanked the other, and when Mr. Ridley was called to the stage, a camera caught him appearing to pointedly ignore Mr. McQueen, who was sitting on the aisle.

Mr. Ridley and Mr. McQueen did not respond to requests for comment on Monday morning, but a publicist for Mr. Ridley said he had thanked Mr. McQueen “on many occasions.” Mr. Gilula said he was not aware of any rift. “In creative collaborations, people go through cycles,” he said.

While Oscar vote counts are not publicly revealed, ticket sales are monitored closely; it was glaringly apparent that “12 Years a Slave” climbed into the history books without ever having truly ignited the audience. Through the weekend, the film had only about $50.3 million in domestic ticket sales, though it has performed well internationally.

Mr. Gilula disagreed. “The American public has embraced the movie far, far more than anyone thought,” he said, noting that some box office analysts were initially doubtful that “12 Years a Slave” could take in much more than $10 million.

Still, ticket sales for “12 Years a Slave” are now less than half those for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a similarly black-themed, reality-based movie.

Mr. Daniels is the only African-American to have had a film nominated for best picture (“Precious”). As it happened, “The Butler” was unexpectedly shut out of the Oscar race. It received no nominations, even for Oprah Winfrey, one of its heavily promoted stars.

That slam, just one in a year that would be full of them, helped clear the way for the “12 Years a Slave” victory. But only by a smidgen.”

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