SANTA MONICA, United States - "12 Years a Slave" won big at the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday, taking home five trophies including best feature and building up momentum on the eve of the Oscars.
The searing historical drama also earned prizes for British director Steve McQueen, supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o, best cinematography and best screenplay.
The film, inspired by the true story of Solomon Northup, recounts the harrowing tale of a black violinist from New York state who was kidnapped and sold into slavery before the US Civil War.
McQueen dedicated his trophy to Northup, whom he said "inspired me to look and try to find the truth."
Brad Pitt - who starred in and co-produced the film - said he had been touched from the outset by the story of a "man trapped in completely inhumane circumstances and trying to maintain his dignity."
"This is a film I personally love. To be part of that doesn't come along that often," Pitt, who braved the rain to attend the laid-back ceremony in Santa Monica with his partner Angelina Jolie, told reporters.
Nyong'o, who turned 31 on Saturday, hailed the importance of independent film, saying it is "where stuff really happens, stuff that matters."
"12 Years a Slave" was not the only big winner of the night.
The two stars of AIDS drama "Dallas Buyers Club," Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, took home acting prizes, further cementing their Oscars frontrunner status ahead of Sunday's Academy Awards.
McConaughey won best male lead for his turn as HIV-positive AIDS activist Ron Woodroof and Leto took home the prize for best supporting actor for playing Woodroof's transgender business partner.
"There is not a safety net and there is freedom coming with that," McConaughey said of making the low-budget film.
Leto spoke out in support of anti-government protesters in Venezuela, where clashes have so far left 18 people dead.
"I'm sending good thoughts to the people in Venezuela that are fighting for what they believe. Venezuela is in my heart," he said.
Cate Blanchett took the prize for best female lead for her role as a disgraced socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine." She too is a favourite to win an Oscar.
The Australian actress thanked the producers and distributors of "Blue Jasmine" for making a film "led by women."
"And in fact it can also make money!" she said.
The Spirit award for best international film went to France's lesbian love drama "Blue is the Warmest Color," in an upset over Italian favourite "The Great Beauty."
Among the other winners were "Nebraska" for best first screenplay, "20 Feet from Stardom" for best documentary and "Fruitvale Station" for best first feature.
The 86th Academy Awards take place Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.