In the lead up to the 86th annual Academy Awards, one prevalent meme was that some Oscar voters simply didn’t want to watch “12 Years a Slave.” As it turns out, that was true: at least two anonymous members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences apparently never saw Steve McQueen’s eventual Best Picture winner, this despite placing the film atop their Oscar ballots.
During her Oscars monologue, host Ellen DeGeneres made reference to that kind of thinking with a joke about how the evening might go: “Possibility number one: ’12 Years a Slave’ wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.”
Oscars: ’12 Years a Slave’ puts spotlight on Hollywood’s approach to race
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.
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