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12 Years a Slave opens the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival 

click to enlarge Dwight Henry (left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (second from right) star in 12 Years a Slave.

Dwight Henry (left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (second from right) star in 12 Years a Slave.

After his screen debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that drew four Oscar nominations, Dwight Henry isn't signing on to act in just any film.

  "I'm in a good position where I don't have to do anything for a living," Henry says. "I'm a businessman with a bakery opening on Decatur Street and one in Harlem. I'm in a position where I don't have to do garbage films. I want to be involved in special films, films that mean things. You'll never see a film with me and say 'Ugh, what is he doing?' ... And this story? This story is wonderful."

  Henry plays a small role, but he's in good company, in director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Fellow Beasts star Quvenzhane Wallis also appears in the film, and they're joined by an all-star cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams and others in the locally shot film. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, 12 Years is drawing Oscar buzz.

  "I would be surprised if it didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture," says New Orleans Film Festival artistic director John Desplas. "It won the People's Choice Award as the best film shown at Toronto, and (two previous winners in the past five years) have ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Pretty good odds."

  12 Years a Slave is the opening night film at the New Orleans Film Festival (Oct. 10-17; www.neworleansfilmsociety.org). The festival includes a curated group of studio releases as well as juried selections of features and documentaries and short, animated and experimental films. The festival gala is Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

  Curated selections include the star-studded August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer-winning stage play and starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. New Orleans native and experimental film director Godfrey Reggio, of Qatsi trilogy fame, offers the impressionistic Visitors in its U.S. premiere. Alexander Payne's (The Descendants, Sideways) Nebraska is getting buzz for the capstone performance of Bruce Dern's career; Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Kill Your Darlings is about a murder in New York that involved the investigation of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe from the Harry Potter series).

  12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. The story is in some ways similar to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

  "(12 Years a Slave) is a graphic presentation of slavery and not done in the Quentin Tarantino style with heavy doses of irony and satire," Desplas says. "This is more of a straightforward narrative that being a slave was no fun, life was really hell. I think that at the end of the year, it will end up being the film with the highest accolades. Everyone seems really excited about it. "

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