Fall Arts Guide: Born Free

Steve McQueen's new film challenges audiences to view slavery from the inside out

British director Steve McQueen had one simple reason for making a film about slavery—he'd never seen one. "Obviously my background"—as the progeny of slaves on the Caribbean island of Grenada—"would gravitate me toward it as an interest," he volunteers cautiously. "But anyone interested in American history would be interested because [slavery] is huge. It's all around you. You're walking down the street and you see it. It's a huge part of the history of the world which hasn't been given enough screen time."

McQueen has a penchant for tackling themes and topics most directors would prefer to neglect. His debut, Hunger, which won him the 2008 Camera d'Or (for first-time filmmakers) at Cannes, portrayed the slow death of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands. His NC-17–rated follow-up, 2011's Shame, explored sex addiction and modern alienation. Both starred McQueen's muse, the Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who has a supporting role as a "nigger-breaking" slave owner in McQueen's upcoming 12 Years a Slave. The October release features Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man in pre–Civil War New York who is kidnapped and illegally sold to a Louisiana plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Despite its harrowing subject matter, 12 Years a Slave is McQueen's most accessible film yet. It boasts the biggest budget of the director's career and enjoys a cast full of A-list actors like Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson, as well as small roles for Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. But it's far from the usual middlebrow Oscar-bait fare. As with McQueen's two previous films, it's shot through with the director's unsentimental spareness, matter-of-factly conveying the physical and emotional violence of slavery with candor and moral complexity, wisely eschewing cinematic gimmicks like manipulative music or picture-perfect close-ups.

12 Years a Slave will be the third slavery-related theatrical feature to be released in the past decade, after Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) and Lars Von Trier's Manderlay (2005). But neither of those films, directed by white filmmakers, were principally concerned with the day-to-day barbarism of slavery. Instead, Tarantino used "the peculiar institution" as a backdrop for stylized violence and an homage to '70s exploitation films, while Von Trier trotted out the evil of the slave system as yet another example of the worthlessness of mankind.

By contrast, McQueen's film is refreshingly straightforward in its exploration of chained existence, particularly its warping influence on both black and white families and moralities. When Northup is less than sympathetic toward a grieving mother whose young son was sold off to another family, she denounces him: "You truckle at [the master's] boot, you luxuriate in his favors"—and she's not wrong. Northup is even seen crossing the line that's always divided the movies' heroic slave characters from Uncle Toms: He whips another slave—and a woman, at that.

McQueen says he'd long wanted to make a film about slavery, "but I needed an 'in' on the story." He had developed the idea of a free man who gets captured into slavery. Then inspiration came from his wife, historian and journalist Bianca Stigter.

He recalls, "I was writing the story with [screenwriter] John Ridley (Red Tails, Undercover Brother), but things weren't going so well. Then my wife said to me, 'Why don't you look into true stories?' I thought, that sounds great." Two days later, he says, Stigter found Northup's autobiography, 12 Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. (Twenty-first-century trailers have nothing on 19th-century book titles on giving away the plot.) "It was a script waiting to be shot, a page-turner," McQueen says. "I was embarrassed I didn't know this book."

Northup's bestseller was published a few months after Uncle Tom's Cabin, and its firsthand testimony helped verify the horrors in Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential novel. Born in Saratoga Springs, Northup was a talented violinist, an experienced carpenter, and an educated black man who was drugged by some acquaintances. When the film character wakes up in chains, his fellow captives take pity on him and advise him on how to survive this nightmare. "I don't want to survive," he spits. "I want to live."

Even as his work has become more political, McQueen remains tight-lipped about his personal views. He's particularly hesitant to conjecture aloud why slavery has been so underexplored in cinema, especially when, as he claims, its supreme importance in world history makes it compelling subject matter. "Maybe it's difficult to come to terms with because its history is such a dark one," he offers. "The Second World War is quite dark, isn't it? I don't know. They make a lot of Second World War films. And the Wild West."

McQueen hints that securing financing would have been difficult without the aid of a certain producer known for his passion projects. "If it wasn't for Brad Pitt," he confesses, "I don't think this film would have gotten made. I had a bit of [fame] because of Hunger and Shame, but not the kind of movement, the motion, to get this movie made." For his producing credit, Pitt was rewarded with an easily likable role as a Canadian itinerant with an abolitionist bent, his twinkling eyes and movie-star teeth barely concealed under a scraggly beard.

But the film belongs to Ejiofor, the London-born actor of Nigerian descent who's impressed critics with his star turns in the British films Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots. "He's the only person I thought could play Solomon," McQueen effuses. "There's a genteelness and a sophistication about Chiwetel. [The character] ventures into a place where he [must] hold on to his dignity, his humanity. Chiwetel was the person who could do that. There's some kind of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte quality to him. He's a gentleman."

Solomon's foil—and his greatest victimizer—is Edwin Epps, the kind of sadist who wakes up his field hands in the middle of the night and forces them to dance and play music for his amusement. McQueen gave the role to Fassbender, he explains, "because he's a great actor, he'd pull it out of the bag. I knew with the right environment, something extraordinary could happen. And I think it did."

12 Years' embarrassment of riches also includes a trio of black actresses, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong'o, and Adepero Oduye, who play female slaves occupying very different levels of the hierarchy within the plantation. The women's stories show how life under the whip could be quite variegated depending on gender, beauty, and a slave-owner's particular mix of sexual greed and weakness. "Women were taken advantage of in the most terrible, horrible ways," McQueen says. "Within that, of course, people would make choices." The film, he concludes, is about survival.

"Everyone thinks they have some kind of idea of slavery, but most people don't have any idea of slavery," McQueen says. "They don't. The history's always brushed aside as if we know this, but we have to open our eyes and look at it. I imagine people are sometimes too frightened to look. But I think we have to look, [so it can] recede in our future."

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