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by Clint Holloway
October 10, 2013 10:00 AM
2 Comments
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NYFF '13: Steve McQueen on '12 Years A Slave,' the Effects of Slavery Today and Reuniting With Michael Fassbender

The past six weeks have been very good to "12 Years A Slave." Coming off of his acclaimed 2011 film "Shame," anticipation was already huge for Steve McQueen's latest work, but once the film began screening the buzz became almost stratospheric. After its ecstatic reception at Telluride and Toronto (it garnered the Audience Award at the latter), the film soared to the front of the Oscar race, with many already positioning it as a lock for many of the main categories. 

Adapted by an 1853 autobiography of the same name, "12 Years A Slave" tells the true story of a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) living with his family in 1840's Saratoga who is conned and winds up getting sold into slavery. Following his harrowing decade-long struggle to survive the tragic ordeal as he is bought and sold and moved to three different plantations, the film captures the true evil and inhumanity of slavery, as the masters constantly inflict torture and brutality on their "property" with a shocking casualness. Watching "12 Years A Slave" makes for a simultaneously excruciating and engrossing experience. 

Following the film's press screening at the New York Film Festival earlier this week, McQueen was on hand for a press conference moderated by Gavin Smith, where McQueen discussed capturing 19th-century plantation life, the evidence of slavery today, and his working relationship with Michael Fassbender, with whom he's worked with on all three of his feature films.

Below is a roundup of highlights from the talk.

On deciding to make a film on the subject of slavery:

"I didn't really know what the traditional idea of slavery was, because I wanted to find out what it was. Somebody asked me the other day for the first time, this is a question that I should have known but nobody had asked me before, 'What was it like when you first found out about slavery?' And I couldn't remember. All I could remember was a tremendous sense of shame and embarrassment. So, in some ways, why I wanted to make this film was, as I said before, somehow to embrace it and tame it and master it, but also to sort of make it mine. So I went into researching slavery and such with open eyes; I couldn't go in with a preconceived idea, that's just not me. Whatever happens and whatever I discover, I'll discover. So I was just trying to find a way in, into the tale. And the way in for me was the whole idea of a free man who is put into slavery. And I liked that everyone could relate to Solomon; he was taken away from his family, so therefore you're on that journey with him. And then my wife had this book, and I thought, 'What's this book?' I had it in my hand, and I looked at it and it was strange, because you have an idea and then it becomes this screenplay, basically, in your hand, and that was it. It was incredible."                                                                                                                           

On how Christian faith factors into the film:   

"As we know, through the centuries religion has kept a lot of people sane, especially in the United States. Or insane, for that matter. You have to hold onto something, or else all is lost. For me, I didn't see it in the sense of Christianity in a way, at least not really. In the book he calls on God a lot, but for me that wasn't the interesting thing. It was about his self-determination, his courage, his own gathering up of his own will, that was more my interest."

On what he learned about the slave experience and how it affects our world today:          

"Survival. I think that's the biggest thing you learn. What would you do to survive? What do you block out to survive? I'm here because certain members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They weren't handed an AK-45 and a grenade, they had to deal with how they had to deal with it, which was survive. It wasn't pretty. Could you imagine being born a slave? I think that's the worst thing that could happen to a human being. Someone who's born a slave, someone who doesn't think of themselves as anything other than what their master thinks, which is nothing. The psychological damage of that, of being born into an environment where you are nothing. I think that when you fast forward slavery to today, walking down the streets, you see the evidence of slavery everywhere, in America, in the West Indies, in London, Europe, you see the evidence of it. This stuff hasn't been dealt with. When you look at the Holocaust, and Germany, and how many people have actually studied that, dealt with that and continue to deal with that. Slavery, it hasn't even started. It's a deep psychological wound."

Watch the full press conference on page 2.

2 Comments

  • Pearl Duncan | October 10, 2013 11:10 AMReply

    Fascinating interview about approaching the subject if slavery with an open mind. Having found ancestors who named Maroons, enslaved people who rebelled, escaped and lived in the wilderness for many generations, I would love to have Steve McQueen look at some of my material about slave ancestors who rebelled. Survival exists -- existed in many forms, and risking everything by rebelling was one form. The people who rebelled were already soldiers. I found them in medieval Ghana. I know their names and their villages.

    Ironically, I also know the names of my Scottish and English ancestors who were slavetraders and slaveowners. Today, I'm in touch with descendants from Ghana and from Scotland.

    At the New York preview, Steve McQueen was very gracious; he shook the hands of everyone on line waiting for the second show and thanked us for coming. For me, that's foreboding. One of these days after my book about DNA and ancestry comes out, he may be interested. Just saying, fabulous interview, to approach such a complex era in history, such complicated characters and themes with an open mind.

  • Nichola | October 10, 2013 9:53 AMReply

    A great interview