I saw 12 Years a Slave last week, and apart from being sensational, the thing I noticed most of all was how difficult I found it to watch. And not only because of the physical torture that is shown on screen, but because of the emotional torture, and the notion that there were once people in the world willing and happy to do these things to people.
When she appeared on Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Extras playing herself, Kate Winslet pointed out that if you do a film about the Holocaust or portray someone with disability, you’re guaranteed an Oscar. But does she have a point?
More often than not, the winner of Best Film will have been something that made you cry – Schindler’s List, Lawrence of Arabia, In The Heat of the Night. In contrast it’s pretty rare that a Best Film winner will be a comedy, with only a small few (like Annie Hall) ever getting there.
It seems intrinsically part of our love for cinema that we should make and love the films which document moments of our own past as a race, moments which you would think we’d also want to forget; the holocaust, world wars, slavery, abuse, murder. Why do we love to be reminded of these things? Or is it that by watching films about horrible wars every few years we can remind ourselves of what might happen if we’re not careful? Films like Thirteen Days help to remind us how close we can come to the brink of disaster, and work as a mini history lesson to those who aren’t aware, putting a Hollywood spin on the education that is learning from the past, so as not to repeat it.
Cinema can be a kind of catharsis – if you cry at a film you’ll have got some of that pent up emotion out, or you’ll be able to revalue your own life. “Wow, my boyfriend might be an arse, but at least he was never in the arms during a horrible war! Hang on..”. Or maybe by watching these films we feel above what mankind has done, as though by shedding a tear at 12 Years a Slave you have proved that you don’t like segregation or slavery. As Amy Poehler joked at the Golden Globes, “I can honestly say that after seeing that film, I will never look at slavery the same way again.”
Are actors ‘brave’ to take on difficult and challenging roles about things which might rather be forgotten? Chiwetel Eijfor is incredibly moving in 12 Years a Slave, and he no doubt would have found it difficult to film, but what about Michael Fassbender? Is he brave too, for portraying someone so awful?
Whatever the answers to these questions, it would seem that 2014 won’t be the year the trend is broken. 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece and a cinematic landmark, there is no doubt about it.