Memoir-based '12 Years a Slave' is getting major Oscar buzz

'12 Years a Slave,' which screened at the Toronto Film Festival, is already being discussed as an Oscar Best Picture frontrunner. The movie arrives in theaters Oct. 18.

Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight/AP
'12 Years a Slave' stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (r.), Michael Fassbender (l.), and Lupita Nyong'o (center).

The film “12 Years a Slave,” based on the memoir by slave Solomon Northrup, is already getting major awards buzz as well as being presumed a frontrunner for the Oscar Best Picture prize.

The film follows Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American, as he is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and forced to work on various plantations in Louisiana. Northrup's memoir of the same name was released in 1853.

“12 Years a Slave” is directed by Steve McQueen and also stars “Star Trek Into Darkness” actor Benedict Cumberbatch and “Prometheus” actor Michael Fassbender as slave owners as well as Lupita Nyong’o as a fellow slave on one of the plantations where Northrup works.

The movie will be released Oct. 18 in the US but was screened at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, where it captured the People’s Choice Award for best movie, considered the top prize. Monitor critic Peter Rainer found the film “alternately searing and stilted” but noted that “with extended sequences featuring whippings and welts, it’s a far cry from the goofball horrifics of ‘Django Unchained’ or ‘Mandingo.’” 

So far, the film has earned a 92 out of 100 average grade on the review aggregator Metacritic, and after its win at the Toronto Film Festival, Guardian writer Catherine Shoard said of the Oscar race, “McQueen's drama looks almost unbeatable, despite nearly six months to go until the Oscars ceremony.”

Hollywood Reporter writer Scott Feinberg called it the “film to beat” in the headline for his article on the movie and said its People’s Choice Award win is “a major development in this year's Oscar race.”

Does all this buzz ensure the film will win the big prize at this year’s Oscars? Plenty of movies have been considered early Best Picture frontrunners and then faded from voters’ minds by the time Oscar season rolled around. Awards show fans will also remember that last year’s Best Picture winner, “Argo,” missed out on most of the prizes before the Oscars, including the People’s Choice Award (which went to “Silver Linings Playbook,” a Best Picture nominee.) The 2011 People’s Choice Award winner was also not the same as the Best Picture winner. However, the People’s Choice and Best Picture winner did match up in 2010, 2008, and, a little farther back, in 1999.

In addition to discussion of Best Picture, critics have pointed to Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o as possibilities for acting prizes and McQueen as a Best Director frontrunner.

Regardless, Ejiofor told USA Today he hopes audiences can simply enjoy the film without wondering about awards odds.

“I love the film," he said."I think it's a really strong piece of work. But I also want people to come to it without all the buzz and the hype and this and that. It's a story of a man going through an extraordinary circumstance. And I do feel it needs to be engaged with in its own quiet, reflective way.”

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