'12 Years a Slave' is already winner, with or without the Oscar

In an odd turn of events, the 2014 award cycle has turned out to be one of the most boring in recent memory.

For some of the movies and actors in the running for Hollywood’s top honors, however, that’s actually a good thing.

The annual post-football parade of Hollywood self-congratulation—culminating in the Oscars—has been noteworthy this year for several reasons. Unlike prior years, there has been virtually none of the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over the lack of quality black actors and filmmakers. In fact, there is a solid crop of black contenders who stand a good chance of taking home the gold.

Along with identifying a mix of old and new names, the most satisfying quality of all is that the candidate selection didn’t feel contrived or cloyingly engineered for a politically correct outcome. Although some notable snubs included The Butler and Fruitvale Station, so-called Oscar-bait movies sometimes don’t make the cut, even when they should. Unlike years past, quality black artists made numerous quality films, and were recognized accordingly.

Rare is the occasion that the cosmic dominos fall exactly into place the way they should.

This year’s nominees (and even those that didn’t get an Oscar nod) validate an argument advanced (in vain) for years that states if you make good movies with black actors and directors at the helm, people and awards will come.

The biggest beneficiary of the award season is embodied in the boundless praise heaped on 12 Years as a Slave. For a movie that addresses a historically sensitive topic, the film has seen surprisingly little controversy, at least not on the order of The Help. Given that the history of the award season is peppered by mini-controversies that flare up over the handful of black movies that do receive recognition (Django and Amistad immediately spring to mind), the generally favorable press accorded to 12 Years is a near monumental accomplishment in itself.

Due to a variety of factors, slave-themed movies are becoming more commonplace, which is an overwhelmingly positive development. The more movies that tackle this important aspect of American history, the more it nullifies the deafening cacophony of hypersensitivity and cries over historical accuracy. The relative lack of controversy swirling around 12 Years a Slave deserves credit, not least of which because it has a tightly-written script and deft acting.

There isn’t much to say about 12 Years that hasn’t already been mentioned endlessly, although some Academy voters felt the film may not have been brave enough. Still, a few points about the movie’s ascendance are worth highlighting. One of 12 Years biggest accomplishments is that it helped elevate the profile of those involved in its making, including a few known yet unsung commodities, like director Steve McQueen.

After years of toiling in anonymity, Chiwetel Ejiofor finally has buzz worthy of his impressive collection of roles. It’s been more than a decade since he starred opposite French ingénue Audrey Tatou (come to think of it, whatever happened to her?) in the gritty art house drama Dirty Pretty Things, where he managed to subtly upstage her. A memorable turn in the film adaptation of Serenity showed his villainous side, and helped pave the way to playing opposite Denzel Washington in Inside Man. His career appeared to plateau afterward, but he now seems ready to resume his rocket-ship to fame.

Last but certainly not least, we can all be grateful that 12 Years put the breathtaking (a friend recently described her as a “timeless beauty”) Lupita Nyong’o on the map. Ms. Nyong’o –who has yet to meet a dress she can’t pull off or a red carpet event she can’t bend to her will –has become an overnight sensation in every sense of the word. Her breakthrough role as Patsey, in all the character’s searing pain and wrenching degradation, almost made it impossible to recognize her off screen. The 30-year-old, Mexican-born, Kenyan-extracted Brooklyn resident has impeccable taste that has sent celebrity watchers into paroxysms of flattery. It begs a theoretical question: Olivia Pope, who?

Still, her most important attribute is her talent, which shouldn’t be lost in the blizzard of the coverage over her personal style. Ms. Nyong’o, like Angela Bassett before her, is a Yale drama grad, and is already moving on to starring alongside big-name co-stars like Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.

In a certain respect, all the attention paid to her appearance –and even the breathless description of her “chocolate skin” made by some media outlets—is a bit of a drawback. The best way to flatter a beautiful and talented actress is by saying just that, rather than drawing undue attention to her skin tone. Albeit unintentional, such talk can be stultifying.

Even if Ejiofor or Nyong’o get waylaid by the infamous kiss of career death an Oscar win tends to bestow upon nominees, they can at least bask in being connected to one of the best-produced movies about slavery that Hollywood has ever seen. At least for now, they can savor the moment.