Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

March 7, 2014

Oscar honors tell simple story

— — Technological achievement is enthralling, amazing and entertaining. But it is the simple -— often true —stories from the heart that capture us even more.

Being an Oscar fan and nerd, I’m always looking for a lesson of truth, a critique of culture or a meaningful moral message that might unexpectedly result from this sparkling, glamorous, and admittedly overly-hyped night. But I didn’t find this year a significant lesson that came from a heartfelt speech, an amusing gaffe or an awkward stumble — although, poor Jennifer Lawrence did fall once again. As a confirmed klutz, I really appreciate this gracefully self-deprecating ungraceful girl.

My Oscar observation this year is that — although a lot of attention was gobbled up by the dazzling, fast-paced, comedic dramas, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle,” or the suspenseful and intense technological feats of a movie like “Gravity” — it was the smaller, quieter and simpler real stories of real people that won in the end.

“12 Years A Slave,” voted Best Motion Picture of the Year, was an incredible story that propelled us forward with incredible performances. Each actor excelled. It was an enormous cast and every single person hit the emotional mark every time. It didn’t matter how big or small the role was — the first and kinder slave owner, the villainous plantation owner and his equally hateful wife, the heroic subcontractor, the simultaneously inhumane and genteel slave salesman and, most notably, the free Northern African-American man sold into southern slavery and the hard-working, tortured slave woman who was the abused and assaulted so-called favorite of the master. Every actor made you forget they were acting. Their director, Steve McQueen, is the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Film.

The film was adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name, written by Solomon Northup, a farmer and a respected musician who was also a New York State-born free man. He was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. He was held captive on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before he was finally released. According to Wikipedia, the steps of his story were retraced and validated in the first “scholarly edition” of his memoir in 1968 and it was determined to be accurate.

It was announced just before the Oscars that the National School Boards Association (NSBA) is partnering with New Regency, Penguin Books and the filmmakers to distribute copies of the film, book, and study guide to America’s public high schools. NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel, said, “Allowing students to see the tragic circumstances and messages conveyed through these works are vital to learning and reflection on our nation’s era of slavery.”

Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Patsey, the slave girl who picked 500 pounds of cotton every day and suffered the brutal rape of her master at night.

Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t win the Oscar for his portrayal of Solomon but, I think, only because of the performance in another small, true and powerful story. I’ve not been a big Matthew McConaughey fan — his romantic comedies were rarely romantic or comedic to me. But maybe that’s what made his portrayal of Ron Woodroof so powerfully transformational, beyond the fact that he lost 38 pounds for the part. McConaughey transforms the drug-addicted homophobic cowboy with AIDs from desperate to determined, from intolerant to compassionate, from hateful to devoted, from selfish to heroic. He travels the world, collecting medicines that are not FDA approved and selling memberships in the Dallas Buyers Club to other AIDs patients. Sure, he was making money but he was also making friends within a community he had once hated. His genuine friendship with an infected transvestite propels both the business and the story — the friendship is life-changing and, for a time, life-saving. Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his touching performance as the good-hearted yet drug-addled transvestite who exudes compassion, kindness and love while living off the scraps of an unloving world.

They made these unique characters as real as the real people they played. And, even though many viewers may not relate personally to their particular story, the actors made the characters very relatable to anyone who suffers injustice, abuse, rejection and mistreatment.

Gravity was a visually stunning film and Sandra Bullock brought heart to both the wide open space and her claustrophobic space capsule. That movie absorbed the top technical Oscar awards like it was the black hole. Despite multiple nominations, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” failed to win a single Oscar — which seemed, in a way, appropriate. The bad guys the movies featured didn’t finish first this time.

There were too many other good films to list this year and many of them reminded me that the simple, human story is the most compelling of all. And we are all living our own simple, human story so we should be compelled by these films to make the most of it.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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