If you believe the buzz this
awards season, four black leading men not named Denzel are in the running for the Best Actor Oscar—and if they all succeed in getting nominations, they'll make Academy Awards history. Forest Whitaker (star of Lee Daniels' The Butler), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), and Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) are all contenders so far, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, the 36-year-old British star of 12 Years a Slave, is the season's most startling revelation.

Ejiofor, who broke out at 20 playing the sailor James Covey in Steven Spielberg's slavery drama Amistad, takes on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free, educated black musician who in 1841 was abducted, kept from his family, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Ejiofor first embodies Northup's charm and grace—and then his gradual, systemic, barbaric degradation, lash by lash.

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They're four of 2013's best—let's see if the Academy agrees.

1. Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Released the week George Zimmerman was acquitted, Ryan Coogler's indie is as timely as it is tragic: Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) plays Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man shot point-blank by police on New Year's Day 2009.

2. Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Of the 39 performers who have won multiple Oscars in acting categories, only one (Denzel Washington) is black. With this Oprah-approved drama, Whitaker could become the second.

3. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen helped make Michael Fassbender a star. Now, with Fassbender in a supporting role and McQueen as his director, Ejiofor looks poised to make a similar leap.

4. Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Producer Harvey Weinstein promises that Elba's Madiba is more "kick-ass" than Danny Glover's portrayal in the HBO film Mandela.

"Amistad was about the fact of slavery, not about the psychology of it," Ejiofor explains when comparing the two films. By contrast, 12 Years a Slave "is a story about how the machinery of the slave trade is designed to break [a man] physically and shatter him psychologically."

Indeed, Northup suffers gruesomely. In one particularly bleak episode, he's hanged from a tree with just enough rope for his toes to barely touch the ground as he gags and gasps for hours. When Ejiofor read Northup's autobiography, he says, "that was the first scene that really brought me to a flood of tears."

Much like other standout black actors such as Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle, Ejiofor has long held the respect of the industry, even as he has struggled to score mainstream leading roles and the paychecks that go with them. He earned raves for his soulful lead in Dirty Pretty Things, proved his range as a transvestite in Kinky Boots, and defined a generation's Othello on stage in London. But in studio films such as American Gangster, Children of Men, and Inside Man, he has been a solid team player: that guy next to Denzel or Clive or both. 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, who pushed Ejiofor's costar Michael Fassbender to extremes as a hunger-striking IRA activist in Hunger and a tortured sex addict in Shame, sensed that Ejiofor was capable of a similarly extreme transformation. "For years I had seen Chiwetel deliver great performances, but I'd never seen him fulfill his potential," McQueen says. "He's a very deep well, and I wanted to see if he could get deeper."

In the perilous environment of 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor is forced to drive all his emotions down deep, in a performance that is as furious as it is remarkably contained. You watch his stillness opposite box-office behemoth Brad Pitt (who also coproduced the film) and it's clear he's capable of commanding the screen. And though Ejiofor has already booked a gig in the upcoming sci-fi thriller Z for Zachariah, starring Amanda Seyfried and Chris Pine, the chances of his headlining a big Hollywood vehicle within an ever-more-conservative industry are less assured. It's hardly coincidental that the four movies drawing Oscar speculation for their black male leads this year were created outside the studio system, points out Lisa Cortes, an executive producer on Precious: "Studio economics drives them to broad, proven product: two blondes, one vampire, and a wizard."

Yes, four black performers have won leading-role Oscars since 2001 (for a grand total of five since 1929), but all of their films—Ray (Jamie Foxx), Monster's Ball (Halle Berry), The Last King of Scotland (Whitaker's first nomination and win), and Training Day (Denzel Washington)—were developed by independent filmmakers. And for a prestige film with a black lead to even get green-lighted typically requires the rainmaking patronage of Oprah (see: The Butler, The Help, and Precious) or, more likely, a white celebrity: 12 Years a Slave, says McQueen, "would not have been made without Brad Pitt. Fact."

Meanwhile, Ejiofor is realistic, focused on the work, and well aware that, although 2013 has been a banner year for black actors, the next one might be more like 2010, labeled by the New York Times as "perhaps the whitest year for Hollywood since the post–Richard Pryor, pre–Spike Lee 1980s." It's telling, Ejiofor notes, that black actors tend to play "historical black figures" in serious dramas, rather than contemporary fictional characters. Consider the fact that the four films generating headlines now are biographical stories, and all but Fruitvale Station are rooted in other eras. "It's a shame," Ejiofor says, "there aren't more attempts to reach out and touch something unfamiliar."

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