12 Years A Slave
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

12 Years a Slave is the movie that left a whole theater speechless. And that’s saying something.

Festival-goers tend to gab easily about their likes or dislikes as they walk out of a film, but the crowd exiting Friday night’s emotionally crushing 12 Years a Slave showing struggled to express their overwhelming admiration. They communicated at first mostly in deep exhales and short exclamations like “Wow,” “Amazing,” and “Oh My God …”

Based on a true-life story that starts in 1841, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a musician — a free, educated, and rather well-to-do Northern black man — who is kidnapped during a trip to Washington D.C. and transported to the deep South, where he is sold into slavery with no recourse for contacting his family or restoring his legal liberty. It opens to the public on Oct. 18.

Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and his impressive cast — which includes Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o — took the stage after the credits rolled, and the audience managed to shake off its collective shellshock for a standing ovation.

Consider this the first film to qualify as a sure-thing Best Picture nominee, and a formidable contender to win. McQueen, Ejiofor and Nyong’o, who displays immense strength in the face of unconscionable suffering as Patsey, a fellow plantation slave, should also prepare for a long season of red carpets.

Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey, who is black, introduced the film by noting its personal significance. “My great, great, great grandparents were involved in plantation slavery,” he said. “And chances are, many of your ancestors were involved in it as well … one way or another.”

The uncomfortable laughs were the last the audience would have for a while, until one moment late in the film, where Ejiofor’s slave Solomon Northup finally encounters an itinerant worker, Samuel Bass (Pitt), who is willing to help him contact his family in the North. After facing only nightmarish treatment from white owners and overseers played by Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson, he is shocked by Pitt’s open-mindedness and asks where he is from. (You can see this moment in the trailer below.)

The answer: Canada.

McQueen, who is also black, told the audience he was compelled to adapt this story, based on Northup’s 1853 autobiography, because he felt the harsh realities of slavery had too rarely been depicted on the big screen. “I wanted to see that story on film,” said the London-born filmmaker. “It’s obvious. But it’s that simple.”

Pitt, who also served as a producer, said: “Steve was the first to ask the question: Why have there not been more films on the American history of slavery? It’s a question it took a Brit to ask.”

Given the brutality the actors were required to recreate, including an agonizing attempted hanging and countless humiliations and merciless beatings, Ejiofor and Nyong’o said the roles were both physically and emotionally draining.

“It was very intense to go to these places,” said Ejiofor. “Solomon’s story is full of [violence], but also full of beauty and hope and human respect and human dignity. With Steve there to guide it, we weren’t afraid to explore all that, and go to those dark places.”

“It was hard to go there, but it was necessary,” Nyong’o added.

Fassbender, who could also find himself in the awards race for playing a demonically volatile cotton plantation owner, said being on the other side of the lash was devastating, too. “I don’t think it would be possible without a real sense of love and connection on set. We were all linked to one another, and without that we wouldn’t have gotten to the high places we got to.”

EW Prizefighter Analysis: Reviews of 12 Years a Slave have been strong across the board, both at Toronto and during its sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival last week. Academy voters at the festivals have been ecstatic, and there’s no question this will be a must-see for anyone filling out a ballot this year.

The Wrestler and Black Swan filmmaker Darren Aronofsky tweeted an image of Pitt and Nyong’o tonight with this message: “oscar front runner lupita nyong’o with my ol’ pal pitt. 12 years a slave = must see gut punch”

The film is undeniably agonizing, but the yearning for Northup to survive and reclaim his freedom gives the audience an equally intense feeling of hope. 12 Years a Slave is a film that, like Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, The Pianist, or Hotel Rwanda, makes you truly feel history by taking an atrocity out of the abstract and personalizing it.

Although he’s instantly recognizable to any casual film fan, Ejiofor is not yet a household name. That will change with this movie. He will no longer just be “that guy” from Serenity, Salt, or Children of Men. A Best Actor nomination is a lock. And although she’s a relative newcomer, Nyong’o is also a strong contender for supporting actress.

By making moviegoers remember the name Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave will do the same for its two main stars.

12 Years a Slave
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes