An unblinking portrait of slavery in ‘12 Years’
TORONTO – In Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northop, a free man from upstate New York who’s kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is hung for daring to strike an abusive and imbecilic plantation hand (Paul Dano). He’s cut down, but only just barely enough to reach the ground. McQueen captures it all in one long, agonizing take, as Northop is left dangling, shuffling excruciatingly on his tiptoes.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that on film, and I wanted to make damn sure if it was on film, it was going to be done well,” McQueen said in a recent interview. “It was very necessary for me to use those kind of shots to tell the story. Film is what 115, 120 years old? It’s a baby. There’s no right or wrong way to shoot anything. It’s not style. It’s necessity.”
Film history, however, is long enough that one might expect one of the nation’s most essential chapters to have been depicted on screen more frequently and fervently. “It’s a massive hole,” says McQueen. There have, of course, been a handful of notable films about slavery (“Beloved,” ”Amistad,” the miniseries “Roots”), but, it’s safe to say, never before has there been a movie like this. “12 Years a Slave” is the most unblinking portrait of slavery yet seen in cinema: a straightforward resurrection of its atrocities, complications and, most of all, its plain reality.
“I wanted everyone to be Solomon Northup,” says McQueen. “You are on that journey with him.”
“12 Years a Slave,” which Fox Searchlight will release in theaters Oct. 18, premiered over the weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival where it was hailed as a masterpiece and very possibly this year’s best picture Oscar winner. It is quickly gathering force as a kind of epochal achievement.
McQueen, the British director of the sex-addiction drama “Shame” and the Irish Republican Army hunger strike tale “Hunger,” had planned to make a film about slavery, but it didn’t take shape until his wife came across Northop’s 1853 autobiography, which straightforwardly tells of his nightmarish odyssey.