The story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in the 1840’s might not sound like the material for an especially high profile movie. Then “12 Years a Slave” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and everything changed. The Fox Searchlight production has not only continued gathering acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many people have proclaimed that star Chiwetel Ejiofor is a lock for Best Actor in the burgeoning Oscar race. It has also solidified the developing reputation of British director Steve McQueen, for whom “Slave” is a major step up in terms of ambition and exposure after his first two features, “Hunger” and “Shame.” McQueen, a sharply reflective and serious thinker who has the air of a university professor, still seems baffled by all the attention. However, during a conversation with Indiewire in Toronto over the weekend, he took a stab at figuring out why this ostensibly difficult movie seems to be doing so well.
He’s had a long time to think this over. After he made his well-received debut feature “Hunger,” McQueen wanted to make a movie about Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson, but the project didn’t come together and the director got drawn into production for “Shame.” Then McQueen’s wife gave him the little-known text “12 Years a Slave,” the memoir written by Solomon Northup. He realized that there was a global issue to the story: Both his family and Ejiofor’s have histories with the slave trade, a reality that counteracts the notion of two Brits making a movie about American history. “This text should be taught all around the world,” he said of Northup’s book. “This was an international issue.”
Viewers have had black history on their minds a lot lately. Considering the question of why there have been so few movies that deal with slavery — and certainly none that portray it with the unflinching detail found in “12 Years a Slave” — McQueen said he felt that recent changes in American discourse have enabled audiences to confront the issue more dramatically than ever before. “I really think it’s because there’s a black president now,” he said. “Also, with the unfortunate killing of Trayvon Martin and the conversations surrounding the Voting Rights Act, people are ready for something like this.”
You can’t go wrong with Brad Pitt. The actor’s Plan B Entertainment produced the movie, and Pitt appears in a minor role toward its end. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t play a bad guy. In fact, some of the early criticisms of “12 Years a Slave” involve the sudden appearance of Pitt’s character, a good-natured Canadian working on the plantation where Northup is kept who tells the slave owner (Michael Fassbender) that he should consider the evil nature of slavery. “The idea of Brad being this superman, that’s Brad. I can’t do anything about that,” McQueen said. “But he’s also a way for us to talk to Michael’s character.”
It’s not a movie that has been mandated by commercial interests. McQueen had never made a movie with a studio before, but Fox Searchlight didn’t intervene much despite the tricky nature of the material. The company may have realized that, in this case, cleaning up the brutal nature of the story would defeat the point. “The studio didn’t give me any notes except for one,” McQueen recalled. “They said that some of the slaves’ fingernails weren’t dirty enough in some of the shots.”
Because audiences are ready for this story and the studio allowed for it, McQueen held nothing back. Two long takes in the movie stand out for the way they show the filmmaker’s ambitious formalism while also deepening the visceral nature of the experience: In one, Ejiofor’s character hangs from a noose for minutes on end; in another, another slave is tied to a tree and whipped repeatedly while McQueen’s camera swirls around her. “I had to pull you into that environment,” he said. “It was the only way to take in the entirety of it.”
Audiences can handle the brutality. Most of them, anyway. Few people expect “12 Years a Slave” to provide an easy viewing experience. At the Toronto premiere, McQueen recalled noticing a few walkouts during the whipping scene. “If there’s just a smattering of people who leave out of thousands, that’s a good sign,” he said.