’12 Years a Slave’ Stuns Telluride: Do We Have an Oscar Front-Runner?

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o leap to front of awards conversation after first screening of Steve McQueen's brutal historical drama

The Telluride Film Festival is about nothing if not discouraging a sense of competition. But anyone at the fest representing the films that were riding a wave of Oscar hopes coming out of Cannes had to feel a bit unnerved by the world premiere of Steve McQueen‘s slave drama “12 Years a Slave,” which rode into town Friday night and single-handedly sucked up all the awards talk in the room.

Suddenly, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a name not exactly on everyone’s lips, became the front-runner for Best Actor, at least as far as the immediate post-premiere tweet brigade was concerned.

Starring in the true-life story of a freeborn black man who was abducted by traders and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era, Ejiofor helped give sated passholders the feeling that they might now have seen four best actor contenders in the first day and a half of the festival – with Ejiofor joining a Telluride field already crowded with Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” Oscar Isaac in “Inside Lleweyn Davis” and Robert Redford in “All is Lost.”

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Ejiofor was hardly alone as an award likely at the Galaxy Theatre premiere.  Lupita Nyong'o is even less of a household name, but she jumped to the front of the Best Supporting Actress list for playing the hardest-suffering slave in McQueen’s brutal film – bypassing a long list of contenders despite noting, in the Q&A that followed the screening, that she was plucked out of Yale to have this as her very first feature credit.

Also on the dais was Michael Fassbender, whose supporting-actor nomination is a no-brainer, given how he takes a role that has no more than one dimension – as the purely evil slaveholder who makes Ejiofor’s and Nyong'o’s lives a living hell – and still manages to be riveting every moment he’s on screen.

That left only one of the cast members who came to Telluride, Brad Pitt, not being touted in social media and among Oscar bloggers as award-worthy, since his role as just about the only virtuous white man in the movie is brief and straightforward.

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Getty ImagesBut Pitt (right, with Ejiofor) probably doesn’t mind being thus overshadowed, since he’s the picture’s producer.

“I’ve seen this film countless times now, and I find it a little bit difficult to speak directly afterwards,” Pitt told the crowd after the screening. “I think it might be more productive if we all just had a group walk around the block or something.”

That speaks to one possible hurdle the Fox Searchlight release might face on its way to winning Best Picture: It’s so chock full of beatings and whippings in its 133-minute running time that some Oscar voters may hit pause on their DVDs to go take a walk and never come back. But as far as further captive audiences for the captivity drama go, more standing ovations are likely in order.

The actors themselves said they’d had some difficulty accepting or going through with the parts. Said a muted Fassbender after the screening, “It’s the first time I’ve seen the movie, and I’m a little taken aback.”

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When McQueen contended that Ejiofor had at first turned down the role, his leading man corrected him: “I needed a moment’s pause – which Steve took as a no,” he said. “I was aware of what it would mean and what it would take.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael FassbenderAs for Nyong'o, the then-Yale student who sent in an audition tape, McQueen said, “It was like searching for Scarlett O’Hara, it really was. Over a thousand girls auditioned for the part … It was looking for that kind of magic, that kind of beauty and grace-it’s very cliché, but when it happens on screen, a star is born.”

McQueen talked about the unlikely path he and screenwriter John Ridley took toward adapting the historical memoir of the same name. “I wanted to make a film about slavery, (but) I needed an in for the story, and I thought the idea of a free man who was kidnapped into slavery was my in, somehow,” he said.

After Ridley had toiled on a script with unsatisfying results, “My wife said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you look at a real account of slavery?’ Duh.”

McQueen’s wife found the source material, “and I could not believe I had not read this book before, and the vast majority of people I asked had no idea of the book. It basically was a script. My eyes popped out of my head. I couldn’t believe it: This was the film we wanted to make.”

And for Telluride attendees who relish enjoying the world’s first look at a front-runner, as they have previously with the likes of “Argo” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” "12 Years a Slave" was the film they wanted to see.