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Watch: How Steve McQueen Turned Horrific Material Into a Universally Beloved Survival Story

Watch: How Steve McQueen Turned Horrific Material Into a Universally Beloved Survival Story

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Movies On Demand. Catch up on this year’s Awards Season contenders and past winners On Demand. Today’s Throwback Thursday selection is “12 Years a Slave.” This article originally ran during the 2013 awards season.]

At this point, hardly anyone would mistake Steve McQueen — the British-born, Amsterdam-based African-American director of “12 Years a Slave” — with the late “Bullitt” star of the same name. The living McQueen started out as an acclaimed experimental shorts filmmaker before landing critical acclaim with his 2007 directorial debut “Hunger,” a spare, haunting portrait of an IRA fighter on a hunger strike during the late 1970’s; he followed that up with another unsettling treatment of male physicality in crisis, the sex addiction drama “Shame.” Both movies starred Michael Fassbender as deeply troubled souls, and “12 Years a Slave” is no exception, though it has much bigger aims than personal strife: The true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American in the 19th century kidnapped and sold into slavery, the movie features Chiwetel Ejiofor at the center of a remarkably poignant and tense story that many have deemed the most compelling treatment of the American slavery experience to date. Fassbender, as the icy plantation owner who pushes Ejiofor’s resolve to its breaking point, puts a chilling face on the brutal racism that sustained the institution.

READ MORE: Steve McQueen Reveals His Next Feature Film Project

Despite its weighty issues, “12 Years a Slave” avoids being a didactic history lesson mainly due to McQueen’s cautious, nuanced directorial technique, which trades melodrama and shock value for pensive long takes and tense exchanges. McQueen manages to depict the era with a mixture of horror and lyricism that makes it come to life with startling immediacy and generated some of the best reviews of the year. Ultimately, McQueen’s ability to wrestle with a major historical issue has helped the widest audience realize that, no matter the topic, he’s one of the most exciting and bold filmmaking voices working today.

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