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, Glenn Kenny makes the case for the best supporting actress of 2013: Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choice for Best Picture on Friday.
Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" is a masterpiece not just of cinematic artistry but of psychology; one needn't even be a particularly "close reader" of the movie to understand how it limns a pathology that defines racism in the United States to this very day. The performance by Lupita Nyong'o in the role of the much-abused—and also much "loved," in a sick, sadistic if not overtly Sadean sense—slave girl Patsey is particularly pertinent in this regard. It's also a protean performance by any standard of acting, and absolutely deserving of an Academy Award for best supporting actress. Nyong'o's characterization is one of incredible psychological complexity.
Patsey is a slave of unusual physical capability who's also the object of a depraved sexual obsession on the part of her owner, played by Michael Fassbender. She suffers gravely not just from physical abuse but also from mental and spiritual humiliations which include a deep sense of shame, is unschooled and has little means of articulating her mortification. Embracing a sense of victimhood is not only not an option for her, it doesn't even exist in the realm of the possible. Nyong'o's performance, her first in a feature film, is a model of control; there's no showboating to it, no wide-eyed imploring for sympathy, just the rigid posture of someone desperate to survive, until she isn't anymore. And after Patsey finds that no one will give her the release she has so come to crave, Nyong'o is magnificent in cloaking the character's ultimate defiance in a bearing of defeat.
Click here for our winner for Best Supporting Actor and come back tomorrow for Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay.