Oscars 2013: EW's no-nonsense Prize Fighter analysis of early contenders '12 Years a Slave,' 'Gravity,' more ...

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Image Credit: Francois Duhamel

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12 Years a Slave (Oct. 18)

Unstoppable. That’s how the Oscar momentum felt immediately after the screening of this emotionally crushing drama about a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped from the North in 1841 and sold into slavery in the deep South, where his new identity is beaten into him, with no recourse for reaching his friends or family.

Along with a Best Picture nomination, Ejiofor’s gripping, hopeful performance is a sure-thing for a Best Actor slot. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) should also expect a long red-carpet season, along with supporting actors Michael Fassbender as a merciless cotton plantation owner and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the object of Fassbender’s twisted affection.

But before anyone starts thinking 12 Years a Slave is already lock to win, consider this cautionary evidence: Academy members have been disturbed by the reviews, which despite being universally positive also tend to describe the movie in off-putting terms. “The two words I keep hearing are ‘brutal’ and ‘relentless,’” said one veteran Academy member who had not seen the film. She predicted many older Oscar voters would be alienated by the violence. Several other veteran Academy members expressed similar reservations.

But don’t forget this is the body that nominated Django Unchained for Best Picture, and gave the supporting actor prize to Christoph Waltz and best original screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. That movie was even more gruesome – although it was a spoof — while 12 Years strives for authenticity. Admirers have compared it to Schindler’s List – another agonizing portrayal of human suffering, which definitely earned the love of the Academy.

If the Academy does turn away from 12 Years, the group would risk not just hypocrisy but irrelevance.

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