The brilliant yet brutal 12 Years a Slave made history Sunday night as the first film directed by a black man, with a predominately black cast, to win an Oscar for best picture. In one of the most competitive Oscar races in recent memory, the honor was bestowed tonight at the 86th Academy Awards. Producer Brad Pitt joined director Steve McQueen and the entire cast onstage to accept the coveted honor.
The film also won for best adapted screenplay, and for Lupita Nyongo's performance.
While the film was widely admired for its searing portrait of America’s slave past, there recently had been concern that the movie, which depicts the kidnapping of free man Solomon Northup in 1841 and his subsequent years of enslavement on a Louisiana plantation, might have been too graphic a portrayal for some Oscar voters. There were whispers that some had not screened it and might prefer the cinematic eye-popper Gravity or the box-office darling American Hustle as best picture. But in the end voters rallied behind 12 Years.
McQueen thanked all those participated in bringing the movie to the screen and then said:
“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today."
Earlier in the ceremony, to the thrill and delight of her fans and admirers around the world, newcomer and Hollywood darling Lupita Nyong'o won the Oscar for best supporting actress and ascended to the Dolby Theatre stage in a pale-blue goddess gown. In an emotional speech, she said:
"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance and for Solomon—thank you for telling her story and your own.
"This has been the joy of my life."
To her director, Steve McQueen, she said, "I am certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful to you and so am I."
12 Years a Slave was a maiden voyage for Luipta, her very first Hollywood role three years after graduating from Yale School of Drama.
Also recognized for the film was screenwriter John Ridley, who becomes only the second African American to win for screenwriting (adapted screenplay). The first was Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious in 2010.
McQueen, while nominated as best director, did not get the nod. That award went to Alfonso Cuarón, who has swept every directorial honor this season for his extraordinary work on the outer-space thriller Gravity.
The Root has a special connection to the film, as Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. served as a historical consultant on the movie. Gates read the script and offered notes on the accuracy of the film.
Overall, the three-and-a-half-hour program, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, was a fast-moving, entertaining show. And the night saw a record number of familiar black faces on the stage. The academy, apparently expecting a significant black tune-in to the program, had more African-American presenters than any time in history.
The star-studded list included Viola Davis, nominated for Doubt and The Help; Jamie Foxx, who won best actor for Ray; Whoopi Goldberg, who won best supporting actress for Ghost; Samuel L. Jackson, nominated for best supporting actor for Pulp Fiction; Michael B. Jordan; Tyler Perry; Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for best actress for Precious; Will Smith, nominated for best actor for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness; and Kerry Washington.
Read the history of Solomon Northup from Henry Louis Gates here.
For a look at red-carpet fashions click here.
For a complete list of Academy Award winners go here.