Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from '12 Years A Slave'. Photo: Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk

Washington - The question of what makes a best picture the best picture is a perennial stumper at Oscar time, which is when even the most casual movie fans are known to become re-traumatised remembering the 1977 ceremony, at which Rocky beat out All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network, or 1999, when Shakespeare in Love took the honour over Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan.

Today’s ceremony is unlikely to result in outrage. Put simply, last year’s movies and this year’s crop of best picture nominees were of such exceptional quality that it’s possible to accept almost all of them as the finest of last year, depending on your criteria.

Gravity, a breathtaking technical and commercial achievement, has invested new energy and vision into the simple genre popcorn movie (and made a ton of money to boot).

The infectiously exuberant caper American Hustle – along with Gravity, a presumed front-runner in the best picture race – possesses the kind of liberated joie de vivre that sent audiences out of the theatre with big smiles on their faces – staking a claim for sheer entertainment value that academy members are within their rights to encourage.

Even if Her, Nebraska or Captain Phillips were to sneak up from behind to play spoiler, each would do so as a portrait of our times, when technology, economic collapse and globalism have left so many people isolated and dispossessed.

Still, even in the face of such eminently worthy competition, 12 Years a Slave deserves to win – as great art, cultural bellwether and historic statement.

There’s no question that 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a 19th-century autobiographical narrative by Solomon Northup, is a staggering artistic achievement. Working with a script by John Ridley, McQueen smoothly threads viewers through Northup’s journey from the freedom he was born into in Upstate New York to being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he spends several arduous years trying to escape.

Eliciting searing, expressive performances from actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, McQueen tells the story simply, following Northup’s harrowing chronicle with enough discretion to avoid being exploitative, but with enough intimacy that viewers are immediately invested in Northup’s plight, as well as his excruciating, hard-won catharsis.

In many ways, that kind of emotional impact defines what academy voters are looking for in a best picture – not a feel-good movie as much as a feel-deeply movie. What’s more, recognition of 12 Years a Slave’s achievement would provide fitting recognition of last year as an exceptional year for African American films, filmmakers and stories – a year that included such mainstream hits as 42, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and The Best Man Holiday, the astonishing debut of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and the stylistic range represented by indies like Mother of George, Newlyweeds and An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.

No one would argue that 12 Years a Slave should win as a symbol of Black Film (whatever that means anymore). It deserves to win if only because it advances cinematic language in ways that feel daring and new. McQueen, who before making feature films created installations in museums and galleries, approaches his work with thoughtful, even elegant formalism, in the case of 12 Years a Slave with long, quiet takes during which the audience is invited simply to observe the characters and their environment; he’s not one for flashy editing or facile manipulation.

At once lush and austere, his aesthetic is always highly disciplined, each shot carefully staged, to create a level of sensory communication altogether separate from, but complimentary to, the explicit plot. Like Gravity, McQueen’s film has also created its own singular grammar, merging the straightforward storytelling of classical film narrative with bold experimentation to create a “third space” between past and present.

Juxtaposing the historical images of 12 Years a Slave with a haunting electronic score by Hans Zimmer, McQueen doesn’t just content himself with telling the story; he creates, with sound and image, a whole other layer of sensory experience, as potent and expressive as Ejiofor and his cast-mates are in their commitment to realism.

That realism plays an important role that extends beyond Northup’s compelling story and into Hollywood’s history itself. In explicit and subtle ways, 12 Years a Slave does its part to dismantle a century of toxic misrepresentations of the slavery-era South that, drenched in moonlight, magnolias and various degrees of revisionism, have helped distort a racial history that America still finds challenging to process. From the depraved freed slaves of The Birth of a Nation to the infantilised mammies and house servants of 1940 best picture winner Gone With the Wind, Hollywood has helped perpetuate some of the most toxic lies about Old Dixie as a world of romance, gentility and benign white privilege.

McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave offers an elegant retort, inviting viewers to luxuriate in the verdant lushness and well-appointed homes of the sugar and cotton plantations where Northup is forced to work, but all the while exposing the physical and psychological torture that made such beauty possible. What’s more, the film captures the psycho-cultural nuances of the relationships that the “peculiar institution” distorted, especially the lengths to which white slave owners had to disassociate from their own humanity in order to dehumanise others.

Of course, 12 Years a Slave isn’t the first feature film to de-romanticise slavery. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and even Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, with varying degrees of success, used their own vernaculars to tell particular truths about slavery.

But McQueen stays the distance, exemplifying cinematic art at its most sensitive and sophisticated, and beginning to undo decades of conscious and unconscious mythmaking. If 12 Years a Slave shows us anything, it’s that history is mutable, always open to rigorous, honest reassessment. The same goes for Hollywood’s own history. If the oddsmakers are correct and 12 Years a Slave takes the big prize tonight, its victory will be deserved on artistic merit alone. But it may also mark the night Hollywood began to live Old Dixie down.

Washington Post-Bloomberg