Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

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After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

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12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.