By Jeff Labrecque
Updated February 27, 2014 at 05:00 PM EST
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk; Everett Collection

Moments after 12 Years a Slave was prematurely anointed as a lock for Best Picture in September, whispers began that Steve McQueen’s harrowing true tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trafficked into pre-Civil War Southern slavery was too raw, too unflinching, and too grisly to go the distance. Some Academy voters confided that the early reviews — which highlighted the film’s searing violence and haunting imagery — had scared them off, and even though they recognized that 12 Years was an important film about an important and long-neglected subject, actually watching it wasn’t their idea of a good time for a Friday night. Since opening in October, 12 Years has grossed $49 million and heads into Oscar weekend a co-favorite, along with Gravity, to win Best Picture, but doubts remain whether enough voters actually saw it — and appreciated it — to push it over the top.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was greeted similarly by the critics upon its release in 1993. That World War II epic about the Nazi profiteer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved hundreds of Polish Jews from the gas chambers by putting them on his factory payroll, was praised to the heavens for bringing audiences face to face with the evils of the Holocaust. EW critic Owen Gleiberman’s review of that film begins by noting its “visions of profound shock and terror … the recurring image of people getting shot in the head,” and closes with “Spielberg has done something that can’t quite be said of any other film about the Holocaust. He has allowed us — for the first time — to see it.”

But rather than repel or alienate viewers, the naked brutality of the Holocaust in Spielberg’s film compelled people to see it in theaters. For some, it became almost a moral obligation to witness Schindler’s List, to confront pure evil — Ralph Fiennes’ sadistic Nazi, Amon Goeth — and share in a worldwide cathartic chorus of “Never again!” That required-viewing duty even became a joke on Seinfeld. Schindler’s List went on to gross $96.1 million ($186.9 million in 2013 dollars) and breezed to seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List are, of course, different films, and Spielberg and McQueen are different filmmakers, but the audiences’ conflicting reactions to the movies’ dedication to authenticity — no matter how ugly — raises interesting questions.

In 12 Years, there are vicious beatings of every sort: murder, lynchings, rape, dehumanizing nudity, and that five-minute, lump-in-your-throat scene where Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is strung up by his neck just inches off the ground. McQueen could be accused of lingering on the slaves’ suffering at times, but in his defense, that’s the point, isn’t it? Plus, Spielberg didn’t sugarcoat anything in Schindler. In addition to the multitude of head-shot executions — back of the head, in the face, a one-armed man, a child, bed-ridden hospital patients, the female construction engineer who questioned the barrack’s foundation, a single line of men with one bullet, etc. — there was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, the burning piles of corpses, even more dehumanizing nudity, and Goeth’s predatory attack on his Jewish housemaid.

Schindler’s List put the worst crime of the 20th century under the cinematic microscope, but perhaps one reason audiences proved able to swallow the film’s grotesque depictions of inhumanity was the fact that the Holocaust occurred over there… in Europe… perpetrated by a Nazi madman. You can argue historical culpability, but the we in Schindler’s List, in most all cases, are the victims and the survivors — even Schindler himself, who is a reluctant hero. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, adds to a historical weight the United States still carries around. Slavery may have been abolished in this country 150 years ago, but it remains a stain on our national character and is part of the reason Hollywood hasn’t made many serious, intimate, historically accurate films about the enslavement of millions of Africans for 350 years on our shores. For most Americans, the we in the Solomon Northup story can be extremely discomforting. After all, we’re the good guys… aren’t we?

Another possible reason that 12 Years a Slave hasn’t gone down as smoothly with audiences as Schindler’s List is the viewer’s relationship with the protagonist. For all the suffering we see in Schindler’s List, the story unfolds through Schindler’s eyes. We meet many of the Krakow Jews who come to work for him, including Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, and though we are constantly reminded of their hopeless circumstances, we are given Schindler as a lifeline, to distance us from the agony. He is a charming hedonist who just wants to make money at the beginning of the film, so his character development is one we can all root for. We can even reassure ourselves that if someone as selfish and vain as Schindler could become a noble hero during the darkest moments of World War II, so could we.

In 12 Years, on the other hand, we experience everything through Solomon. He’s drugged and kidnapped, ripped away from his wife and children, shackled and beaten, sold into servitude, forced to be less than a man, nearly broken beyond repair. The indignities and assaults are relentless, and we’re not spared by the camera, because we don’t meet Solomon’s Oskar Schindler — the Canadian carpenter played by Brad Pitt — until the very end. By that time, the audience is nearly as hopeless in despair for Solomon as he is. “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic,” Josef Stalin is credited with saying. That chilling sentiment might have a cinematic corollary that’s behind the complicated reaction to 12 Years: To see one man alone endure so much horror can be the most painful tragedy to witness onscreen.

Earlier this week, it was announced that 12 Years a Slave will be made available to high schools across the country as an education tool, along with Northup’s 1853 memoir. Schindler’s List received the same honor. Both films were embraced as instant classics by the critics, and in time, future generations of students will be shaped by 12 Years. Win or lose Best Picture on Sunday, I suspect McQueen’s mesmerizing period epic will take its rightful place in film history, every bit Schindler’s List‘s equal.

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen