It’s conceivable that three 2013 films about the African-American experience in this country will snag a Best Picture nomination — Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave (which runs 134 minutes), Lee DanielsThe Butler (technically known as Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Ryan Coogler‘s Fruitvale Station. But it’s more likely that only one will really compete. Because there’s an assumption out there, possibly influenced by a benignly racist mindset, that only one black film can be nominated for Best Picture and that if all three push hard they could end up cannibalizing each other.

Maybe it’s not such a racist thing. If there were three big-scale superhero films opening this year that were thought to be as good (or almost as good) as The Dark Knight, only one would make any headway as a Best Picture contender…right? (People would say, “Oh, come on…we can’t have two superhero movies competing for Best Picture…please!”) Same thing if there were three first-rate dramedies about women involved in tough competitive urban careers — only one would be singled out for possible Best Picture consideration. And so on.

A more realistic assessment is that we’ll see a mano e mano between 12 years A Slave and The Butler, and that poor Fruitvale Station — a much stronger, more vital and visceral capturing of the African-American experience than The Butler, which is basically a Black History Month film — is going to be pigeonholed as a Spirit Awards contender because it hasn’t made enough money. That wouldn’t be a “tragedy” per se, but it wouldn’t seem at all fair to a lot of people who know what good filmmaking is.

I haven’t seen the McQueen, of course, but I probably will at Telluride. (Or so I hear.) I’m a little bit afraid of that running time but if it manages to be about something other than just “slavery was bad”…well, here’s hoping.