Trailer Face-Off: 12 Years a Slave vs. Mandela

Published August 1, 2013

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: 12 Years a Slave vs. Mandela, two biopics about a revolutionary’s fights for freedom in an oppressive society.

PremiseIt’s not difficult to see the similarities between the South African anti-apartheid movement and American abolitionism. Based on his book The Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela chronicles the rise to fame of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and was the President of the African National Congress. Mandela presents a more personal image of Nelson; he is not only a revolutionary leader, but also as a loving husband to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela  (Naomie Harris) and father to their two daughters. Like Mandela, Twelve Years a Slave is based on a memoir: that of Solomon Northup, a forerunner in the anti-slavery movement. Born a free man in New York, Northup was kidnapped and forced into slavery in Louisiana. He spent 12 years fighting to reclaim his freedom and later became an important player in the Underground Railroad. While both stories are inspiring, the antebellum South is a much more popular film setting than South Africa.Advantage: Mandela

ProtagonistsViewed as a “revolutionary, outlaw, rebel, fighter, radical, and liberator,” Nelson Mandela combatted the violent and racist South African government and became the voice of the people. Despite much opposition and some run-ins with the law (he was imprisoned from 1962-1990), Mandela became a beacon of hope for South Africans and was eventually elected president. Like Mandela, Solomon Northup refused to settle for life as a slave and set out for racial equality. The film famously quotes him saying, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live,” which became his motto during his fight for freedom. Advantage: Tie

MusicBeating drums alternate with excerpts of Nelson Mandela’s powerful speeches to create a dramatic backdrop for Mandela. Screams, sirens, and horns amplify the intensity of the trailer, arousing fear in the audience. The music quickly transitions into K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag,” the lyrics of which—”When I get older, I will be stronger”—complement Mandela’s ascendence to power. Opening with a mixture of soft piano and the gentle hum of insects, the music in 12 Years a Slave draws us into a Louisiana plantation. A scene in which Solomon Northup plays an eerie violin song that foreshadows his fate. The music becomes more upbeat towards the end, transitioning into traditional African-American slave songs and inspirational instrumentals, but does not have the same level of emotional intensity as Mandela.Advantage: Mandela

DirectorsBritish director Steve McQueen is known for his provocative, critically-acclaimed indie films like Hunger and Shame and has won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and the Discovery Award at Toronto. McQueen made Michael Fassbender a movie star and has the backing of Brad Pitt, who is one of the producers of 12 Years A Slave. He also has a pretty cool name. Mandela‘s Justin Chadwick has been a bigwig in the business for years, although most of his directorial success stems from television series, such as Shakespeare Shorts and his miniseries Bleak House. His most recent films The Other Boleyn Girl and The First Grader attest to his talent as a director, but he’s no McQueen.Advantage: 12 Years a Slave

Oscar OddsOscar season this year is going to be competitive. Not only are both films potential nominees for Best Picture, but their loaded casts are bound to receive nominations and potentially bring home the Oscar as well. Idris Elba, who is a favorite of critics following his epic performance as Stringer Bell in The Wire, plays a spot-on young Nelson Mandela. With his prosthetics (an Oscar-winner requirement), Elba is barely recognizable, and his South African brogue is spot on. Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, will be very tough competition. Like Elba, he has a very impressive resume of supporting roles in hit films like American Gangster. It’s Ejiofor’s first starring role in a feature film—the role that will make or break him.

The leading ladies, too, will provide fierce competition. Naomie Harris, who plays Winnie Mandela, has had high-profile roles as Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond film Skyfall, and in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean films. It is very likely that Naomie Harris will compete against Sarah Catharine Paulson, who plays the traditional, Southern wife of a prominent plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. Known for her roles in Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, Game Change, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Paulson is clearly a strong Oscar contender. Advantage: Mandela

VerdictThis is a toughie. With their loaded casts and impressive protagonists, both films seem worth watching. But there’s no such thing as tie in the Oscar race, so we’re going to go with Mandela. The timing is perfect, considering Nelson Mandela’s recent attention due to his deteriorating health; Idris Elba’s powerful performance as the young Mandela will show the venerable leader in a new and youthful light. Plus, now that Harvey Weinstein has picked up the film, Mandela is destined for success. Winner: Mandela

Trailer Face-Off runs every Thursday. For more, click here.