The Academy seemed to be leaning toward "Gravity" for much of the evening Sunday, ultimately handing the film seven Oscars, including the expected Best Director victory for Alfonso Cuarón. But while the Academy was busy throwing wins like Best Original Score, Best Film Editing and more the film's way, it was saving up the evening's top prize for "12 Years a Slave," making it the first film to win Best Picture that was directed by a black filmmaker.

"Making a film can be a transformative experience, and I want to thank 'Gravity,' because for many of us making this film, it was a transformative experience," Cuarón — the first Latino winner in the category — said in acceptance. "And it's good, because otherwise it would have been a waste of time!"

Said Steve McQueen in accepting the honor (which he shares with producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas), "Not just to survive but to live: this was the legacy of Solomon Northup."

The film triumphs over what has been one of the most competitive Oscar seasons in recent memory, the Best Picture victor a mystery to everyone until Will Smith opened the envelope on stage at the Dolby Theatre.

"This is not a story about African-Americans, this is a story about America," McQueen told HitFix in October of last year. "So race, of course, has something to do with it, but it's also about respect for people. It's all about learning from the past in order to move on into the future. This isn't a petty conversation about, sort of, 'you did this' and 'you did that.' That becomes too negative. This is a story about how some have survived through a horrible ordeal. Solomon Northup survived because of love."

"12 Years a Slave" also won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.