Resounding applause. A humble speech name-checking the requisite agent, filmmaker, studio executive, and the Academy. “For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.” And in that rather unremarkable way, history was made as Sidney Poitier broke through and won Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards.
Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday’s historic Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. “12 Years” was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it was a position the film never shook in a year hailed by the Washington Post as “a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies,” a year that saw the makeup of the Motion Picture Academy become younger and more colorful.
[Related: Oscars: The Night's Big Winners]
With each win along the road to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” delivered.
And while “12 Years” did not score the most trophies Sunday, it took home the big prize as Steve McQueen, who also directed, and fellow producer Brad Pitt (winning his first career Oscar), were among those collecting the statuettes for Best Picture. Its other wins included Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
The in-your-face, disturbing drama recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, an American freeman kidnapped and sold into the most brutal bondage in the antebellum South. Difficult subject matter that no doubt turned off some filmgoers just as it turned off some Academy voters (a few of whom went public in the days before the ceremony admitting they couldn’t bring themselves to watch).
The film grossed about $130 million worldwide, considerably less than “Gravity’s” $700 million-plus haul. But McQueen’s film embodies the kind of highbrow material that allowed the Academy to pat itself on the back. This is a film already deemed “impactful” enough to become part of the standard high school curriculum.
[Related: Complete List of 2014 Oscar Winners]
As much as the industry appreciates the bottom line, its members like to use the Oscars to serve the public, in this case bringing a relatively little-known chapter in American racial history to a much broader audience.
Fox Searchlight picked up on this sentiment, reflected in the distributor’s recent marketing campaign and its simple two-word tagline: “It’s Time.” Time for what? For a tough look at the Peculiar Institution, and a movie that puts the African-American experience front and center. And it didn’t hurt that the film had Pitt as producer, co-star and cheerleader-in-chief. As he told a Toronto audience: “If I never get to be in a film again, this is it for me.”
Back at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, McQueen closed out the night, saying: “There are actors and there are artists. These are artists: surprising, thrilling, dangerous and brave.” Clearly the Academy agreed… and followed the script to the end.
“Two things could happen tonight,” host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the top of the show. “’12 Years a Slave’ could win Best Picture. Or you are all racists.”
Poitier arrived onstage Sunday to a thunderous ovation, accompanying Angelina Jolie to present the award for Best Director. It underscored a legacy that extends not just to “12 Years a Slave’s” Best Picture win, Nyong’o’s triumph in her first feature, and the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Somali native Barkhad Abdi got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “Captain Phillips.” Add to that the principal players in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “Blue Caprice,” and it has been a strong year for people of color at the movies. The Academy acknowledged it needed to diversify its membership and inducted a new class accordingly.
[Related: 2014 Oscars Red Carpet Arrivals]
That said, outspoken actor Isaiah Washington is among those not ready to declare a complete racial victory just yet. “Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people,” Washington, who played a serial killer based on Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad in “Blue Caprice,” and did not see any Oscar attention despite a fine performance, told Yahoo earlier this season.
While “12 Years” took home the big prize, another filmed shared the limelight. “Gravity” scored the most awards, led by Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, and represented a major moment for the much-maligned science-fiction genre.
“2001.” “Star Wars.” “Close Encounters.” “Alien.” “ET.” “Avatar.” Dinged by sci-fi’s reputation as low-brow — a relic of its roots as B-movie 1950s popcorn fare — not one of those films, despite near-unanimous critical acclaim and mainstream success, was deemed significant enough to earn the kind of Oscars that validate a genre.
After Sunday, however, sci-fi matters.
Like “12 Years,” Gravity exploded on the scene in Toronto, as Cuarón’s thriller about an ill-fated space mission starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took hold of the public imagination, soared and never fell back to Earth.
With a 97 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and fueled by mind-blowing 3-D visual effects, “Gravity” has been a success by any measure, with a leading seven wins on Sunday, including Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Cuarón, who also shared the film-editing award, became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director.
While “12 Years” and “Gravity” cashed in their early momentum with a clutch of gold on Sunday, “American Hustle,” the third member of what had been a three-horse race, fizzled in the home stretch.
Only a year after his “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated then largely ignored, David O. Russell’s flashy period caper earned a whopping 10 nominations, with A-list stars Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper gaining nominations in each of the acting categories. But at the end of the night, “Hustle” came up empty.
Notably, “American Hustle” premiered later in the season, well after Toronto. It entered the fray after frontrunners had already established themselves. And not only did it fail to make up for lost time, it was also bested by another early entry: “Dallas Buyers Club.” The moving drama about an unlikely AIDS activist rode outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto dominated the male acting awards, along with a third statuette for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
[Related: Things You Didn't See at the Oscars]
In addition to “American Hustle,” high-quality films “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest flashy collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, were also shut out.
In the end, 2013 was a vibrant and competitive year, where movies in space and earthbound, comic and tragic, arty and action-packed competed. The Best Actress category reflected a rise in strong roles for mature women, while the battle for the Best Actor was so competitive that many deserving performances (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, James Gandolfini) didn’t even sniff a nomination.
Even President Obama joined the discussion at the national water cooler, hosting a series of screenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To quote Poitier from 50 years ago, 2013’s year in cinema deserves “a very special thank you”: movies still matter — and are essential to the American dialog about who we are now, and how we define ourselves in the future. We have the capacity to both reach for the sky in the future, and face down our darkest demons in the past.