In Defense of ‘American Hustle’ over ‘12 Years a Slave’

Oscar’s 2013 Best Picture showdown was an open-and-shut race. Did the best film win?

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Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
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Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle (Sony Pictures Releasing)

Nothing guarantees Oscar consideration quite like tackling an Issue so Important that it deserves two capital I’s: Important Issue alert!

This is usually most effectively done by using history, race, or religion as a narrative device. God isn’t just in the details; He’s in with the Academy, too. It’s easy to imagine its members asking themselves “But could it save your soul?” while viewing screeners of Best Picture candidates.

Life of Pi, a 2012 Best Picture nominee, would have been a better movie without the faith hook, but would it still have resonated with the Academy enough to win Ang Lee his second Best Director Oscar (and his second for a film that didn’t also win Best Picture, since the Academy didn’t deem Brokeback Mountain’s gay cowboys in forbidden love as Important in 2005 as the racial politics of Best Picture winner Crash)?

Did Gravity, which lost Best Picture and won Best Director (for Alfonso Cuarón) the year after Pi, need the dead daughter subplot to be seen as more than a special-effects-laden popcorn film?

Oscar generally prefers its Best Picture winners to be at least a little hard to watch, more admirable than enjoyable.

Occasionally, pure fluff does end up taking the top prize (see 1998 Best Picture Shakespeare in Love, the rare relatively recent winner that wasn’t a drama based on real life or an acclaimed novel, though it did tick the Oscar box of being set in the past). Still, Oscar generally prefers its Best Picture winners to be at least a little hard to watch, more admirable than enjoyable. Even a genuinely crowd-pleasing movie like Chicago made a semi-serious statement about the lengths/depths people will go to for a taste of celebrity.

Based on a true story

Replace “celebrity” with “money and glory,” and you could be talking about American Hustle. Just like how Chicago was up against the more obviously Oscar-friendly The Hours on Oscar night in 2003, American Hustle faced the more obviously Oscar-friendly 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Unlike Chicago and The Hours, both contenders were based on a true stories, but Hustle director David O. Russell (his name rhymes with his movie’s title — how brilliant!) immediately freed his work from the constraints of real-to-reel transference with a simple opening disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened.”

It was a tongue-in-cheek touch that immediately lightened the tone, inadvertently urging us not to take the proceedings too seriously. While this was an artistically shrewd move (an overly earnest approach surely would have made the complicated tale borderline impenetrable — and interminable), it probably didn’t impress an Academy that’s so easily swayed by heavy-handed gravitas.

Russell handily exempted himself from possible claims that he’d taken too many liberties with ABSCAM history while telling audiences with a wink, “Just sit back and enjoy.” But American Hustle was no pulp fiction (or Pulp Fiction, the 1994 Best Picture nominee that lost to Forrest Gump, a film packed with the sort of pat sentiments that Oscar often favors). That it ended up being deceptively deep was one of its virtues, and perhaps one that many moviegoers, so accustomed to being force fed serious topics garnished with disturbing images and baity performances, might have missed completely.

That it ended up being deceptively deep was one of its virtues, and perhaps one that many moviegoers, so accustomed to being force fed serious topics garnished with disturbing images and baity performances, might have missed completely.

For those who were too busy enjoying the movie’s flashy ’70s kitsch, tapping along to the retro-gold soundtrack, and trying to keep up with the byzantine plot to get to the moral of the story, there actually was one … well, several of them:

1) The world is neither black nor white but dominated by shades of gray.

2) People do terrible things, but most of us are good enough to try to justify the awful things we do as being for a noble cause, for nobody thinks of himself or herself as a bad person.

3) Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually, as Edith (Amy Adams) actually says in the movie … or desperation makes people behave more stupidly than usual.

4) Entrapment is basically the law’s way of saying that anyone can be coerced into committing a crime.

5) The ’70s was the best decade for movie music.

Into the future

Beyond its thematic value, American Hustle also provided future two-time Best Director nominee Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) with his current signature style. Christian Bale scored nominations for Hustle, Short, and Vice, while his frequent co-star Amy Adams received two of her six nods for Hustle and Vice. (Fun Fact: A Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for The Fighter, for which Adams also was nominated, four-time nominee Christian Bale has only once been nominated for a film in which she didn’t co-star.)

Though American Hustle was well-received critically, the consensus was behind 12 Years a Slave in 2013. It won plaudits for being groundbreaking and revolutionary and perhaps was destined to be the Best Picture winner, even before its completion. (Hollywood’s liberal guilt is real.) It certainly was far more ambitious than Hustle, but for all of its Important Issue bluster, its message was a deceptively simple one: Slavery was horrible.

Tell us something we don’t know. Despite the efforts of Gone with the Wind to romanticize slavery, or U.S. History class to downplay it, any of my fellow Americans who had sat through any slavery film from the previous four decades should have gone into 12 Years a Slave fully aware of the savage brutality of human bondage, U.S. style.

Any of my fellow Americans who had sat through any slavery film from the previous four decades should have gone into 12 Years a Slave fully aware of the savage brutality of human bondage.

For all of its great performances and Steve McQueen’s beautiful, detailed direction, 12 Years a Slave didn’t really offer anything new beyond soon-to-be Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Sure Simon Northrup’s personal story, documented in the 1853 memoir that gave the movie its title, had never before been told onscreen, but anyone who watched the 1977 TV miniseries Roots had already witnessed the re-enacted horror of Kunta Kinte (and scores of other black Africans) being snatched from freedom and shackled into slavery.

Singular hero or one in millions?

I’m not sure why Northrup was presented as such a singular, original hero when, for centuries, black Americans had to endure everything he did without coming out on the other side. Was it because he had tasted freedom before slavery? Well, so did the Mandinka Africans in Part I of Roots, which offered what remains the most indelible image of slavery ever presented to me, possibly because at 7 years old, it was the first — the first of way too many over the next 40-plus years.

If 12 Years a Slave had shown us more of what Northrup’s life was like as a free man in New York City before his capture and scenes of what his family had to endure during his absence, that would have been something different. It would have presented viewers with a side of black American life during the first half of the 19th century that we really never get to see.

Apparently, McQueen was eager to get to the whippings and the ceaseless cruelty — you know, the hard-to-watch stuff that makes you know you’re in the middle of an Important movie and practically guarantees Oscar consideration. So we didn’t get to see much of Northup’s family and what life was like for free blacks in the north, if only to provide us with some contrast to his life in captivity.

What was going on with his wife and kids during his absence? Did they realize he’d been abducted? How did they cope with his mysterious disappearance? There’s an Odyssean element to this story that begs to be presented from both sides.

Watching scenes of the family’s struggle would have made Solomon’s resonate beyond that of thousands of men in captivity. I may have been more invested in a reunion, too.

For me, 12 Years a Slave didn’t feel nearly as original as the previous year’s Best Picture nominee Django Unchained had. What the movie offered was not so much one man’s unique story as yet another expose on the horrors of life on a Southern plantation circa the mid-19th century. I wanted less of that sort of sensationalist exposition and more of Solomon’s inner life.

Perhaps the scope of 12 Years a Slave was limited by its source material (which I haven’t read, so I can’t say for sure). Unlike Hustle’s creative team, 12 Years a Slave’s probably didn’t want to jeopardize the film’s potential with the Academy by loosely basing it on a true story. It had to tell Northrup’s story the way he told it or be as faithful to it as possible.

I don’t mean to minimize that story or the insidiousness of slavery, but after McQueen’s parade of brutality had passed me by, I wasn’t left with much to think about. After all, I’d seen that march so many times before.

American Hustle, however, left me contemplating avarice, vanity, and human nature, all things that remain relevant today, via multi-layered characters that weren’t all good or all bad. It proved that you can laugh, be entertained and think, all within the space of two hours.

Given a choice between the two, I know which one I still never ever want to watch again.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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