It’s bleak, barbaric and brutally unsparing about the part played by almost every white person in perpetuating injustice in 1840s America. Yet 12 Years a Slave, the drama by British director Steve McQueen, has proved the popular choice at the Toronto film festival, winning its People’s Choice award.
The festival, which ended today, is unlike rivals such as Cannes and Venice in that it hands out only a small set of awards voted for by the public, rather than elected juries. Yet its top honour has proved increasingly unrivaled as an indicator of how Oscar members will vote. Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech both won Toronto then the best picture Oscar; last year Silver Linings Playbook (eight Oscar nominations, one win) took top honours in Toronto, while Argo (three Oscars) was named runner-up.
This means McQueen’s drama looks almost unbeatable, despite nearly six months to go until the Oscars ceremony. Odds have dropped dramatically since its ecstatically-received premiere last Friday evening; it recently overtook David O Russell’s American Hustle in poll position amongst Oscar tipsters.
As well as best picture, McQueen’s two-and-a-half-hour tearjerker, based on the memoir of Solomon Northup – a free man kidnapped then sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841 – looks likely to generate awards buzz for Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, as well as for Michael Fassbender as the sadistic planation owner who buys him off the more compassionate Benedict Cumberbatch. There has been much acclaim, too, for Lupita Nyong’o, playing a slave who’s the object of Fassbender’s lustful eye, and whose horrific beating in one scene proved too much for some audience members.
The third collaboration of McQueen and Fassbender after Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave could also see wins for cinematographer Sean Bobbit and scriptwriter John Ridley (who also directed the Jimi Hendrix biopic which premiered at the festival).
If it does continue unimpeded along the road to awards glory, McQueen, born in London but now living in Holland, could be first black director to win the directing Oscar (to date, only John Singleton and Lee Daniels have ever been nominated) and the first black director to pick up the best picture award (there have only ever been four black nominees).
The runners up prize in Toronto was won by another Brit, veteran director Stephen Frears, and another real-life drama Philomena – the film proving a hit at Tiff after first premiering in Venice. The movie was co-scripted by Steve Coogan after reading in the Guardian about the attempts of journalist Martin Sixsmith (who Coogan plays) to trace the long-lost son of Irishwoman Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was forced by the Catholic church to give him up for adoption. Frears gave Ejiofor his first lead, in 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things; this is the third big film this year for Coogan, following The Look of Love and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
The second runners up award went to Hugh Jackman/Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Prisoners, while the best documentary award to The Square, a chronicle of events in Egypt’s Tahir Square over the last two years. Meanwhile, the Midnight Madness award went to the rhetorically-titled Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Speaking to the Guardian before the festival began, artistic director Cameron Bailey singled out McQueen’s drama as his own most eagerly-anticipated title. “There’s a kind of intensity of expression happening among UK film-makers,” he said. “They’re upping the game collectively. There is a willingness and an ability to confront the harsh realities of life in a way that strips away artifice and niceties and shows you what the film-maker believes to be the truth of the situation.”
His sentiment was echoed at the premiere by Brad Pitt, who has a significant cameo in Slave as well as producing through his Plan B outfit. “Steve was the first to ask the big question: why have there not been more films on American history of slavery?” said Pitt. “It took a Brit to ask it …. And I just have to say: if I never get to participate in a film again, this is it for me.”
International critics’ prize (Fipresci prize)
More on 12 Years a Slave
• First look review: 12 Years a Slave• News: Steve McQueen on Slave – ‘It’s not about sugar-coating history’• News: 12 Years a Slave wins standing ovation• Feature: 12 Years a Slave set to triumph in Toronto
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