LONDON — The force of "Gravity" was strong at the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday — but it was unflinching drama "12 Years a Slave" that took the top prize.
Steve McQueen's visceral, violent story of a free black man kidnapped into servitude in the 19th-century U.S. South was named best picture. Its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, took the male acting trophy.
Ejiofor thanked McQueen, a visual artist who turned to filmmaking with "Hunger" and "Shame," for bringing the story to the screen.
Holding the trophy, the British actor told McQueen: "This is yours. I'm going to keep it — that's the kind of guy I am — but it's yours."
McQueen reminded the ceremony's black-tie audience that, in some parts of the world, slavery is not a thing of the past.
"There are 21 million people in slavery as we sit here," he said. "I just hope 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another filmmaker to make this film."
The prizes, coming two weeks before Hollywood's Academy Awards, are watched as an indicator of likely Oscars success.
It was a good night for lost-in-space thriller "Gravity," which won six prizes, including best director for Alfonso Cuaron.
The 3-D special effects extravaganza also took the awards for sound, music, cinematography and visual effects. And despite its mixed parentage — made in Britain by a Mexican director and starring American actors —it was named best British film.
Cuaron paid tribute to star Sandra Bullock, who is alone onscreen for much of the film.
"Without her performance, everything would have been nonsense," he said.
Con-artist caper "American Hustle" charmed its way to three prizes, including original screenplay and supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence. Its spectacular 70s stylings took the hair and makeup award.
The best-actress prize went to Cate Blanchett for her turn as a socialite on the slide in "Blue Jasmine." She dedicated the award to her friend and fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died this month, calling him "a monumental presence who is now sadly an absence."
"Phil, buddy, this is for you, you bastard. I hope you're proud," Blanchett said.
The supporting actor prize went to Barkhad Abdi, who made an explosive screen debut as a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips."
The 28-year-old called his experience of going from obscurity in Minnesota to stardom — complete with an Oscar nomination — "surreal."
In the past few years, the British prizes, known as BAFTAs, have helped underdog films, including "Slumdog Millionaire," ''The King's Speech" and "The Artist," gain Oscars momentum.
The prize for adapted screenplay went to "Philomena," based on the true story of an Irish woman's decades-long search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption.