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How Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ Turned Horrific Material Into a Universally Beloved Survival Story: Awards Season Flashback

The director talks about avoiding an instructional tone to get at the human strength of Solomon Northup's story.

Steve McQueen

Daniel Bergeron

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Spectrum. Catch up on this year’s Awards Season contenders and past winners On Demand. Today’s flashback winner is “12 Years a Slave.”]

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.

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.

While Ejiofor gets the most screen time in “12 Years a Slave,” actors tasked with playing the mean-spirited overlords of his captivity faced an equally daunting task. But the director’s track record put them at ease. “I believe Steve to be a really extraordinary filmmaker,” said Sarah Paulson, who plays the relentlessly hot-tempered wife of Fassbender’s character. “So it wasn’t surprising for me that the movie was well done. What surprises me, I guess, is how powerful it is.” She lobbied for the role after reading the script, but didn’t see the film until months after production was wrapped. “I knew about all of the moments that were there — the scene where he is hanging, and all that whipping, all of these things that I could read on the page,” she said, “but what I think is so great and so powerful about the movie is that when you put a real image to it, connect it to a person that you have connected with as the audience, it becomes personal.”



Dynamic Cast:

Live With It:

Mutual Inspiration:

Steve McQueen

Daniel Bergeron

This feature was originally published on December 8, 2013.

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