As America observes the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, actors depicting the Great Emancipator, an abolitionist Congressman and an immigrant who frees a slave and the movies they’re in have all been nominated for Oscars, along with films celebrating revolution in France and the Age of Reason in Scandinavia.
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Honest Abe and Tommy Lee Jones plays the Radical Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens in Best Picture nominee “Lincoln,” which is about passage of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery, snagged 12 Academy Award nominations (the most noms this year), including Steven Spielberg for Best Director and Tony Kushner for Best Adapted Screenplay.
German actor Christoph Waltz, the émigré bounty hunter disdainful of slavery who liberates (the un-nominated) Jamie Foxx, scored a Best Supporting Actor nom for “Django Unchained,” which is likewise one of the nine Best Picture nominees. Waltz previously won that accolade for Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 anti-Nazi “Inglourious Basterds”; Tarantino received an Original Screenplay nomination for the militantly anti-slavery, 1858-set “Django Unchained,” wherein Foxx’s Django kills more white supremacists than Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, John Brown, Malcolm X and Huey Newton combined. Denzel Washington, who’d previously won a Best Actor Oscar and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a Black Civil War soldier fighting to end slavery in 1989’s “Glory,” has also been nominated for Best Actor for "Flight."
The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic “Les Miserables” received eight nominations, including: Best Picture; Hugh Jackman for Best Actor as Jean Valjean, the wronged convict who does forced labor; Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the proletarian forced into prostitution, for Best Supporting Actress; and for Best Original Song (“Suddenly”). This epic about injustice depicts an 1832 student uprising in Paris and ends with France’s 99% taking to a symbolically gigantic barricade, symbolizing the revolutionary spirit.
The Best Foreign Language Film nominees are: Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” is a lushly romantic, fact-based period piece about how enlightened doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) brought the Age of Reason’s ideals to the court of King Christian VII. Canada’s “War Witch” is about a 12-year-old girl in sub-Saharan Africa who is captured by a rebel army during a civil war. The Chilean “No” stars Gael Garcia Bernal (who played Che in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and a cable TV movie) as an advertising executive who campaigns against dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a 1998 referendum. Norway’s “Kon-Tiki” is a fictionalization of the real life voyage of a raft from Peru to French-occupied Polynesia, with Gustaf Skarsgård as Bengt Danielsson, the Swedish anthropologist who eventually became one of the leading voices protesting French nuclear testing near Tahiti.
The youngest (nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and oldest (85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva for Michael Haneke’s "Amour") actresses ever to be nominated for Best Actress are competing in that category with Sally Field, who plays an increasingly unhinged Mary Todd Lincoln in “Lincoln,”, Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who supposedly helped liquidate Osama Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Although nominated for Best Picture, “Zero’s” director, Kathryn Bigelow -- who’d won Best Director for 2009’s Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker” -- did not receive an encore directing nom for the movie which has been mired in controversy regarding the role torture played in killing Bin Laden and whether the CIA and/or Obama administration leaked classified information to the filmmakers.
The Louisiana-set indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has likewise generated heat for its depictions of child abuse and of a predominantly Black subculture pursuing a backwoods lifestyle, although Benh Zeitlin received a Best Directing nom, as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with co-writer Lucy Alibar.
The Best Documentary Feature nominees include Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras,” about a Palestinian farmer’s filming of the struggle against Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. "The Gatekeepers" is about former chiefs of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. "How to Survive a Plague" deals with the anti-AIDs activist groups ACT UP and TAG. Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” is a powerful indictment of the rape epidemic in the U.S. military. "Searching for Sugar Man" is about the rediscovery of the Chicano musician Rodriguez, who inspired South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Although "Chasing Ice" -- which uses stunning time lapse cameras to document glacial melting -- was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature, the film’s "Before My Time" by J. Ralph is up for Best Original Song.
Ang Lee, who’d won Best Director for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” is up for the same Academy Award this year for “Life of Pi,” which has also been nominated for Best Picture. In an upset, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a relatively small film dealing with mental illness, earned eight nominations, including in all of the acting categories (an Oscar rarity), and David O. Russell for Best Director and adapted Screenplay. In another unusual Academy move, all of the Best Supporting Actor nominees -- including Robert De Niro for “Silver Linings Playbook” -- have previously scored Oscar gold.
Abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens inspired Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a scheming, overzealous congressman, in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic “The Birth of a Nation.” But Tommy Lee Jones’ scene-stealing depiction in “Lincoln” sets the record straight about one of America’s greatest freedom fighters, who dares to love an African-American woman.
You’ve come a long way, Thaddy -- and so have the movies.