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If We Picked the Winners 2014: Best Actor

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Odie Henderson makes the case for our pick for the Best Actor of 2013: Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choice for Best Picture on Friday. Click here for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor.

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In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor exemplifies Norma Desmond’s great line from “Sunset Blvd.”: “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” The actor radiates mental and spiritual turmoil through the expressiveness of his eyes, brow and mouth. It burns from within, at times as bright as a supernova, at others as dim as a single candle in the darkest night. As Solomon Northup, Ejiofor’s facial calibrations are rarely less than perfect. His early scenes reek of shellshock and the hopeful optimism that the cruel joke of his situation will be rectified. As the film progresses, his eyes depict how his situation curdles his defiance into an almost hopeless sense of defeated acceptance. In the final scene, those eyes tear up as part of a haunting apology to a family he no longer knows.

The birds-eye distance of director Steve McQueen’s gaze requires an actor who can give the audience a view from the ground and an emotional rhythm to follow. Ejiofor is the instrument of measurement here—he’s the metronome that keeps and marks the passage of time. Depending on which characters he is onscreen with, Ejiofor plays up and blends certain elements of Northup’s personality. His anger at Paul Dano’s overseer differs from the mixture of rage, terror and disgust that he manifests for Michael Fassbender’s Epps. His concern for Patsey is tempered by an unspoken admiration of her strength. And his frustration and impatience at Adepero Oduje’s wailing, weeping slave reveals a more unsavory side of a man who may have gave little thought to Oduje’s situation when he was a free man.

“12 Years a Slave” provides numerous opportunities for Ejiofor to visually communicate with the viewer. His agonizing near-lynching, his awakening in bondage, and the burning of his last attempt at freedom are all memorable scenes. But the one that seals just how deserving Ejiofor is of that Oscar is the sudden moment where he turns to face the audience. As he “stares” at us, I saw what I felt reflected back at me. For a moment, to paraphrase Flaubert, Solomon Northup c’est moi.

Acting like this never wins awards for men. Voters want more action, flashiness and gimmickry from actors, while actresses tend to be rewarded for the loss of a sense or total silence. I’ve no hope for Ejiofor on March 2nd, but he is RogerEbert.com’s choice for Best Actor.

Click here for our winner for Best Actress and come back tomorrow for Best Picture.

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