The real Northup was a skilled carpenter and violinist before being captured and sold into slavery. (The Washington Post)

A quick look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture…

Synopsis: A free black man in pre-Civil War America is kidnapped and sold into slavery in this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir.

Total Nominations: 9 (Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing)

Directed by: Steve McQueen (nominated for Best Director, first nomination)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (nominated for Best Actor, first nomination), Lupita Nyong’o (nominated for Best Supporting Actress, first nomination), Michael Fassbender (nominated for Best Supporting Actor, first nomination) Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson

Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from “12 Years A Slave.” (Francois Duhamel/AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, )

Why it should win: In the hands of Steve McQueen, what could have been a maudlin or gratuitously sentimental tale of a man’s survival against horrific odds instead became an eloquent, visually elegant example of how writing, acting, image and sound come together to create an indelible emotional experience. Juxtaposing sequences of sadistic violence with the lush beauty of a Louisiana plantation, McQueen gracefully dismantled centuries of cinematic lies about the slavery-era South, from “The Birth of a Nation” to “Gone With the Wind,” exposing the savagery underlying the moonlight and magnolias Hollywood has long sold as one of America’s most primal myths.

Why it won’t win: The tough subject matter and graphic scenes of sadistic torture in “12 Years a Slave” have led some observers to conclude that it might be too “difficult” for Academy members, who in recent years have rewarded such genteel, feel-good stories as “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.” They may prefer to reward both the technical and commercial achievement of “Gravity.” Another theory has the vote splitting between both those films, and “American Hustle” sneaking in for the steal.

Ann Hornaday’s review: 4 stars

“Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, “12 Years a Slave” in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine — if not cauterize — America’s primal wound.”

Box office as of Feb. 24: $49 million domestic, $128 million worldwide

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