Moments after 12 Years a Slave was prematurely anointed as a lock for Best Picture in September, whispers began that Steve McQueen’s harrowing true tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trafficked into pre-Civil War Southern slavery was too raw, too unflinching, and too grisly to go the distance. Some Academy voters confided that the early reviews — which highlighted the film’s searing violence and haunting imagery — had scared them off, and even though they recognized that 12 Years was an important film about an important and long-neglected subject, actually watching it wasn’t their idea of a good time for a Friday night. Since opening in October, 12 Years has grossed $49 million and heads into Oscar weekend a co-favorite, along with Gravity, to win Best Picture, but doubts remain whether enough voters actually saw it — and appreciated it — to push it over the top.
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was greeted similarly by the critics upon its release in 1993. That World War II epic about the Nazi profiteer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved hundreds of Polish Jews from the gas chambers by putting them on his factory payroll, was praised to the heavens for bringing audiences face to face with the evils of the Holocaust. EW critic Owen Gleiberman’s review of that film begins by noting its “visions of profound shock and terror … the recurring image of people getting shot in the head,” and closes with “Spielberg has done something that can’t quite be said of any other film about the Holocaust. He has allowed us — for the first time — to see it.”
But rather than repel or alienate viewers, the naked brutality of the Holocaust in Spielberg’s film compelled people to see it in theaters. For some, it became almost a moral obligation to witness Schindler’s List, to confront pure evil — Ralph Fiennes’ sadistic Nazi, Amon Goeth — and share in a worldwide cathartic chorus of “Never again!” That required-viewing duty even became a joke on Seinfeld. Schindler’s List went on to gross $96.1 million ($186.9 million in 2013 dollars) and breezed to seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List are, of course, different films, and Spielberg and McQueen are different filmmakers, but the audiences’ conflicting reactions to the movies’ dedication to authenticity — no matter how ugly — raises interesting questions. READ FULL STORY