Those still upset over British director Steve McQueen’s snub for “Shame”at the 2012 Oscars may be avenged this year as he enters the Oscar race with what may possibly be the most talked-about film of the year, the seminal “12 Years a Slave.”
Based on a memoir of the same name, the film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a well-respected free man who is drugged and sold into slavery in 1841. For 12 years, Northup fights to survive in the American South under the violent and brutal conditions of slavery.
When McQueen first read Northup’s memoir, he immediately knew the story was movie material.
“It was so striking, this journey of a free man … living a very quiet tranquil life,” McQueen said at a press conference at the New York Film Festival. “The idea of taking, grabbing someone from that and bringing them to an extremely unpleasant ordeal—you go with him. That’s what was interesting to me.”
For McQueen, the greatest theme of the story is Northup’s resiliency and refusal to succumb to despair. “Survival, that’s the biggest thing. What you do to survive, what you block out to survive,” McQueen said. “I’m here because some of my ancestors survived slavery.”
McQueen noted the relevance of addressing such difficult subject matter. “When you sort of fast-forward slavery to today you see the evidence of slavery everywhere in America and the West Indies and London and Europe,” he said. “This has not been dealt with. … It’s a deep psychological wound.”
The evil of slavery is most terrifyingly embodied by Michael Fassbender as the relentlessly cruel slavemaster Edwin Epps. McQueen said that Fassbender was his top choice for the role.
“I think he’s the most influential actor of his time. … I mean, people want to be an actor because of him, people want to be in a movie because of him, people want to make a movie because he could be in the movie,” he said. “He has that kind of pull, that quality where people want to jam with him.”
But Fassbender is not the only actor who gives a bravado performance. “When I say action … we’ve trained so often, we’ve talked a lot, and there’s a lot of trust with each other, so whatever they do is correct,” McQueen said. “It’s beautiful, it’s magic.”
Although the subject is emotionally taxing, “it comes down to love,” McQueen said, and the cathartic experience of filming reinforced for the director the idea that “to survive is to sort of understand and to love.” For McQueen, the process provided a sense of closure on this complex and emotional topic.
“What’s so wonderful for me about this whole experience is to delve in deep into the idea of slavery and come out sane again.”