By Glenn Whipp
10:59 AM EDT, October 14, 2013
It wowed festival-goers and film critics at Telluride. It was declared the best picture Oscar winner in Toronto. Madonna "visibly teared up" at Tuesday's New York Film Festival screening, even though she apparently spent a fair amount of time texting during the movie. (And, Papa, don't preach about her doing so or risk being called an "enslaver.")
Sunday night, the acclaimed historical drama "12 Years a Slave" finally landed in Los Angeles, screening for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater. It wasn't a packed house by any means. An eyeball estimate put attendance around 600 to 650 people. "Gravity," Alfonso Cuaron's space survival story, by contrast, filled the room to capacity last weekend, turning away late arrivers.
"12 Years a Slave" tells the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into servitude in Louisiana. The film's immersive depiction of the misery of plantation life as well as hangings, near-lynchings, whippings, a rape and numerous other scenes of brutal punishment proved too much for a handful of academy members Sunday night, though the mid-screening walkouts were minimal.
Director Steve McQueen, actors Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard and Ejiofor, screenwriter John Ridley, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and composer Hans Zimmer received loud, appreciative ovations when they were introduced at a post-screening Q&A. Kenyan actress Nyong'o, who portrays a slave Northrup meets at the plantation, received a particularly strong response when it was revealed that "12 Years" marked her film debut.
Reaction to the movie afterward was mostly positive, though, given the subject matter and its stark presentation, there was naturally not a whole lot of ebullient conversation as members left the theater.
"It's tough medicine, strong but necessary," said one academy member, who indicated she would be putting the movie high on her ballot. (Academy members didn't give their names because they are not authorized to comment on the awards consideration process.)
Apparently, though, it's not a dose everyone is prepared to take -- at least at the moment. Several academy members indicated they had difficulty convincing their cohorts to join them at the screening. Excuses ranged from the banal ("It's not a Sunday night kind of movie") to the procrastinatory. ("I'm just not in the right frame of mind to watch that one yet.")
"And my answer to that," said one academy member, recalling the conversation with a fellow voter, "was, 'When will you be?' And I suspect the answer may well be 'never.'"
Another member at the screening said he had spoken with a colleague who professed that after watching another movie dealing with America's painful racial history, "Lee Daniels' The Butler," he had his fill. "I've read all about the Civil War and slavery," the academy member said. "I don't need to see a movie repeating what I already know."
"Every story written about this movie begins with the word 'brutal,'" said a member of the academy's actors branch. "And I suspect that description might initially keep some people away. Initially. But this is a movie people need to see, and I suspect most members eventually will."
The academy screening began what will be a significant week for the movie. The filmmakers and actors will participate in another Q&A and work the room at a reception following a showing Monday night at the Directors Guild of America. The film then opens Friday in 15 theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Toronto.
A strong commercial reception, coupled with stellar reviews, would likely convince fence-sitting academy members to expedite their own viewings.
"Nobody wants to be left out of the conversation," one academy member said. "It reminds me of 'Schindler's List.' Everyone eventually saw it and admired it, but I don't know anyone who has seen it a second time. It's just too tough to take."
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