The 51st New York Film Festival: "12 Years a Slave" Director Steve McQueen

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British filmmaker Steve McQueen has secured his place in American cinema with his third feature film, 12 Years A Slave. The film is an odds-on favorite for multiple Academy Award nominations. It is based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was sold into slavery in Louisiana for twelve years before his true legal status was discovered in the mid-19th century.

12 Years A Slave is being heralded as an innovation in cinematic slave narratives, because it is one of the few times that the enslaved individual's perspective has been the primary focus of the film. David Thomson of the New Republic posed the questions, "Why has this film not been made before? Why have we been waiting? And what were we waiting for, when the necessity of this picture was as evident as the heat of the day?" Even more unique is this tackling of a very American history by a filmmaker, cast, and crew that are predominantly citizens of other nations.

In this panel, McQueen shares how his background as a British man from a West Indian family drew him to wanting to connect with slavery more fully than he had in the past. He gives insight into the film's cinematographic framing, how the actors engaged with the emotional material, and what he ultimately learned from Solomon's experience, that the motivation of the slave was survival at all costs.

McQueen's first two feature films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), earned him praise for the visual imagery they displayed that drew on his previous work as a video installation artist, which won him the 1999 Turner Prize in the United Kingdom. That background contributed to the stylistic imagery found in 12 Years a Slave, which McQueen intended to invoke the works of Francisco Goya who "painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture" in McQueen's words. Among other honors for Hunger, McQueen won the Camera d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival Grand Prize. Shame earned him two directing awards from international film festivals and multiple best actor awards for Michael Fassbender, whom has appeared in all three of McQueen's feature films.


McQueen speaks about what impelled him to make the film, particularly his own need to wrangle with the topic of slavery and understand it better. When his wife read 12 Years a Slave, he realized the book was essentially the script he wanted to work from for that purpose.


The primary thing McQueen learned about slavery through making the film was that slaves' motivations boiled down to survival. Additionally, the repercussions of the psychological damage done to generations of people who were born being valued as nothing is an issue we have only barely started grappling with.



McQueen wanted Michael Fassbender to play Mr. Epps, but he did not take the actor's participation for granted. McQueen goes on to describe the quality of Fassbender's acting and calls him the Gary Oldman of this time.


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