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By tradition, Oscar front-runners draw unforgiving scrutiny and flak in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, either in whisper campaigns launched by rival studios, by actors on talk shows, or, by proxy, through the media. But a cone of silence has surrounded one film – 12 Years a Slave – in an intriguing way.

With a few exceptions, the competitors have been hands-off with Steve McQueen's film, for good, and probably strategic reasons. McQueen's historical drama, based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup was hailed as the Oscar front-runner since its premiere at Telluride, seconded by being picked as audience favourite at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It should have been open season. Remember how critics raised question of whether John Nash, hero of A Beautiful Mind, was anti-Semitic? Or Academy members Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis saying they wouldn't even see Brokeback Mountain, never mind vote for it? The stories continue: the alleged mistreatment of the impoverished children in Slumdog Millionaire, the alleged Nazi-sympathies of The King's Speech hero, George VI.

Last year, arguments that Kathryn Bigelow's thriller, Zero Dark Thirty, was sympathetic to the CIA's pro-torture policies derailed the film's Oscar chances. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the early front-runner, which was described as "inordinately accurate" by writer Tony Kushner, left itself open to attacks of excessive dramatic licence, from reimagining Connecticut as a pro-slave state to exaggerating the possibility that the Civil War might have ended with slavery intact.

12 Years a Slave is not beyond reproach. When the film was shown in Toronto, the filmmakers oversold the obscurity of Northrup's memoir (previously made into a TV movie, and a staple in African-American studies college courses). There are also legitimate questions of how much the memoir was shaped by Northrup's collaborator, white lawyer David Wilson, in the service of the abolitionist cause. Those who have read the memoir will notice the movie's script's dramatic embellishments, including inventing a murder on the transport boat that took Northrup to New Orleans.

Director Steve McQueen hails from the austere world of modern art, not popular storytelling, and the film's cold tone is also a potential weakness. David Edelstein, in a review of the film in New York Magazine, rejected what he called McQueen's unrelenting "painterly malignancy" and arty fascination with degradation (though personally, I think McQueen's interest in how we look at suffering is profound).

Obviously, criticizing a movie about slavery risks sounding either implicitly racist, or merely stupid. (A case in point: Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, who, without having seen 12 Years a Slave, accused it of exaggerating "the bad parts of slavery as only Hollywood can." Though a few liberal film critics have questioned the role of Brad Pitt as the "white saviour," mostly it has been ignored.

Why? Because the wisest strategy was to let people forget about that movie that was so hot last October, and is grim and serious.

Last year, Argo, obviously a less weighty film than either Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty, took the best picture prize by staying out of the mud. This year, 12 Years a Slave 's major competition is American Hustle, another movie set in the late seventies, featuring big hair, costumes and actors doing impersonations, that cheekily promises only that "some of this actually happened." As the Oscar blogger Sasha Stone of Awards Daily noted ruefully, when she declared American Hustle the new front-runner in early January, the problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it took the lead early in October. Also, "It's not a rolling party of hard nipples poking through polyester and it doesn't have a glittering disco ball following it around nor funny, teasy sexless sex scenes."

On Sunday night, 12 Years a Slave risks a long history of "worthy" superior movies – Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Saving Private Ryan, Brokeback Mountain, Lincoln – which lost to lighter entertainments. There is one tiny studio trick, however, that, in the vacuum of negative talk about it, may just vaunt 12 Years a Slave to the winner's circle – a two-word tag line that Fox Searchlight began using a few weeks ago on its posters and ads: "It's time."

The phrase, a simple play on the movie's title, earned shrill accusations that Fox Searchlight is playing the "white guilt" card by reminding Academy voters' about 12 Years a Slave's historical importance. No, voting for or against 12 Years a Slave is not a referendum on Hollywood's history of race relations, but this well-timed nudge should also remind voters that, the movie everyone thought was unbeatable last October is still seriously good.


This article refers to the film The King's Speech being criticized for the "alleged Nazi sympathies" of King George VI. The connection to Nazis of his brother, the Duke of Windsor, is well known. The only suggestion of such sympathies on the part of King George VI came when, in 1939, he asked the government's foreign secretary to "encourage the German government to check the unauthorized emigration of Jews" to Palestine. British government policy at the time opposed Jewish emigration to Palestine. The British government accepted 70,000 Jewish refugees on the eve of the Second World War.