There are many salty moments in America’s young history, but few feel as harrowing as our time of slavery. The issue has been captured in many film and television iterations over the years, but we have yet to see a definitive work on the era that wholly captures the disgusting nature of this heinous crime. However, that just may have changed with director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to a rapturous response, launching it into the awards race as a potential frontunner in multiple categories.
Hit the jump for my rundown of 12 Years a Slave’s awards potential in this special TIFF edition of Oscar Beat.
Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, the film tells the story of an educated and married black man living in New York in 1841 who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for over a decade. The ordeal in and of itself is disturbing enough, but director Steve McQueen approaches the material with a frankness that refuses to gloss over the truly horrifying details of the ordeal. It’s this unwavering approach and the absolutely brilliant performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o that not only make 12 Years a Slave one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most important films period.
McQueen’s typical long takes and lingering camera are put to excellent use here, as the audience is forced to ruminate on the issues at hand and live vicariously through these characters. This isn’t hard when Ejiofor completely disappears into the role of Northup, assuring himself a slot among the Best Actor nominees if not the win. It is an immensely powerful performance that is both captivating and heart breaking.
Conversely, Fassbender turns in an incredibly difficult performance as one of the most disgusting and loathsome characters put to screen: ruthless slave owner Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave marks the actor’s third time working with his Hunger and Shame director McQueen, and if there’s any justice it should result in his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Another highlight of the film is relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the “favorite” slave of Epps with grace and desperation in equal measures. If the Academy takes to 12 Years a Slave as strongly as I think they will, Nyong’o could be a dark horse candidate to land a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
In addition to the performances, McQueen seems like a very, very likely candidate for a Best Director nod. This is a masterfully told piece of filmmaking, and McQueen is beyond worthy of the recognition. Nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design are also possible, and though Hans Zimmer does a little borrowing from himself for the score, it’s effective nonetheless and could result in a nod.
After hearing the buzz from Telluride and finally seeing 12 Years a Slave for myself at TIFF (where it also received an incredibly positive response), the film really does feel like a potential Oscar heavyweight. More importantly, though, the film absolutely deserves it. This is the kind of pic that could benefit from “Oscar buzz” in that general audiences might not seek it out otherwise, and I would argue that this is an important piece of filmmaking that should be seen by as many people as possible.
There are still a lot of promising films to come in 2013, but right now the prospects of 12 Years a Slave landing multiple nominations in the major Oscar categories are extremely good.
Click here to catch up on all of our TIFF coverage thus far, and peruse the previous TIFF editions of Oscar Beat below.