By Steve Fisher
IN 1841, SOLOMON Northup, a free-born
black man in New York, was lured to
Washington, D.C., with a lucrative job offer.
What awaited him was drugging, kidnapping
and being sold into slavery in Louisiana, after
he was beaten into assuming the identity of a
runaway slave named Platt. His ordeal is portrayed in the powerful film 12 Years A Slave,
nominated for nine Academy Awards, a brutally realistic, intense depiction of Northup’s
fight to survive and to regain his freedom,
while struggling to maintain his dignity.
12 Years A Slave is British director Steve
McQueen’s third feature film; he previously
wowed critics and audiences with Hunger,
about a Northern Irish prisoner hunger strike,
and Shame, which dealt with sex addiction.
Not one to shy away from intense subjects,
McQueen wanted to make a film about one of
America’s great shames: slavery.
“There’s been less than 20 films made
about slavery. There are more films about
Spartacus than there are about African-American slavery,” McQueen tells The
Connection. He felt the earlier films that
broached the subject were mere caricatures. “I
wanted to make something closer to the truth.”
The film achieves that and provides such a
strong sense of truth and inhumanity that the
brutality may be difficult to watch for some.
McQueen advises limiting viewing to children
in their mid-teens and older.
Northup’s experience is embodied in the
brilliant performance of British actor Chiwetel
Ejiofor (pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-
oh-for). You don’t just see the horror through
his eyes; you experience it with him. “He was
my first choice for Solomon Northup,” says
McQueen, noting he needed someone with
the stature of a free man, not the demeanor of
a slave. “[Ejiofor] had that. He reminds me of
Harry Belafonte. There’s a certain stature
about these gentlemen that had to have some
kind of humanity that would carry them
through an inhumane environment.”
Another heartbreaking performance comes
from a new discovery, Lupita Nyong’o, who
was found by casting director Francine Maisler.
Nyong’o was still a student at Yale University
School of Drama when she was cast. “Lupita
was just amazing,” states McQueen.
Michael Fassbender gives a frightening
performance as a vicious slave master whose
behavior might even be characterized as psychotic. Benedict Cumberbatch is a more
kindly master. And Brad Pitt, whose Plan B
Entertainment was a producer of the film,
appears in a small but pivotal role as the
Canadian abolitionist who helps to change
Northup’s life for the better.
After the film screened at the Toronto
International Film Festival in September,
McQueen claimed to have no expectations for
awards, saying, “My expectations have been
met. I made the movie. If anything else comes
our way, it’ll be great.” Now that awards season has arrived and the film is winning multiple prizes and ending up atop numerous
critics’ best-of-the-year lists, McQueen tells
The Connection, “I think it’s always encouraging to get a pat on the back. It definitely
gives you a little spring in your step for sure.”
12 Years A Slave may indelibly etch a
period of American history into our collective
psyche, but McQueen says the concept of
slavery has not disappeared completely; it’s
just taken different form.
“It’s African-American populations in
prison and in mental health, unemployment,
single-parent families, education, crime,
drugs,” he says. “It’s about measuring where
we’ve been, where we’re at, where we were at
Descent into captivity
Filmmaker Steve McQueen captures
a shameful time in U.S. history
and where we want to go. That, to me, is always
what the film’s about in a way. And how can
we be better, how can we progress.” C
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Scan or click here to watch a
short scene from 12 Years A Slave.
(See page 5 for instructions.)
12 Years A Slave is
available in a Blu-ray/
UV combo pack in all