SANTA MONICA: Harrowing slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” swept the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday with five wins, just one day ahead of the Oscar ceremony Sunday.
“12 Years a Slave” won five of its seven nominations at the awards show for independent movies made on small budgets, including the top award for best feature.
Oscar front-runners Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o also took home Spirit Award trophies on the eve of the movie industry’s biggest honors.
“12 Years a Slave” producer-director Steve McQueen, who also won best director, dedicated the best picture Spirit Award to lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and supporting star Michael Fassbender, who were both nominated but did not win.
“Michael Fassbender is a genius. He’s brave, he’s feminine, he’s masculine ... that’s what Michael Fassbender is,” McQueen said. “Chiwetel was the soul and heart of this movie and gave the most nuanced performance you’ve ever seen.”
The Spirit Awards, held in a giant tent on California’s Santa Monica beach, is usually a sunny and crisp affair. But this year, guests were armed with umbrellas and rain boots as bursts of heavy rain pattered on the tent.
Rising star Nyong’o, who made her film debut with “12 Years a Slave” and was also nominated for an Oscar Sunday, jumped in delight as her name was announced as best supporting actress, giving Ejiofor a hug and being carried to the stage by McQueen.
“Thank you Film Independent. Not a bad way to celebrate my birthday!” the actress, who turned 31 Saturday, said with a big smile. She dedicated her award to her mother.
“12 Years a Slave” also received nine nominations for Sunday’s Oscar Awards, including best picture, director, actor and supporting nods.
Blanchett won the Spirit Award for best female lead for her role as a woman dealing with a financial fall from grace in “Blue Jasmine.”
“This film proves that audiences are interested in stories led by women, and that they can in fact make money,” the Australian said. She also led a tribute to late actors James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman and film critic Roger Ebert.
McConaughey, who has made a transition from big budget comedy fare to independent dramas in the past two years, was named best lead male actor for his role as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, who became a beacon of hope for the AIDS community in the 1980s.
McConaughey’s co-star Leto won best supporting actor for playing a transgender HIV-positive woman in “Dallas Buyers Club” and had one of the afternoon’s more amusing thank-you speeches.
He also thanked Hoffman and shared his award with the family of Gandolfini, who was nominated in the category.
The Spirit Awards, sponsored by the nonprofit group Film Independent, are Hollywood’s top honors for independent film and art house projects made for less than $20 million.
Notable Spirit Awards winners in previous years that have gone on to win the Oscar the following day include Natalie Portman for “Black Swan” in 2011 and Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” last year.
Other winners from Saturday included best documentary for “20 Feet From Stardom,” a film about backing singers, and Abdellatif Kechiche’s lesbian coming-of-age tale “Blue is the Warmest Color” for best international film.
“Nebraska” writer Bob Nelson won the best first screenplay award.
“This is really the fulfillment of a boyhood dream to one day become the oldest recipient of the first time screenplay award,” the 57-year-old quipped.
The best first feature film award went to Ryan Coogler, the 27-year-old director of “Fruitvale Station,” based on the killing of a young black man from Oakland, California, who was shot down on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by white police officers.
Coogler gave a passionate acceptance speech about similar stories across the U.S., including the September 2013 police shooting of an unarmed young black North Carolina man, Jonathan Ferrell.
“I can’t help but think when I hear stories like this, if Jonathan Ferrell looked like Matthew McConaughey, he wouldn’t have been shot down, he would have been alive,” Coogler said, winning a standing ovation from the audience.