British artist Steve McQueen has a pre-occupation with the human body, a pre-occupation he displays in his films Hunger, Shame and now 12 Years a Slave. Unlike David Cronenberg's more philosophical and sometimes abstract contemplations on the human form, McQueen is earthy and lays his characters bare, both physically and mentally.
There are moments when he thinks he can win but it’s harrowing because hope is complicated
Michael Fassbender played his tormented leads, hunger striker Bobby Sands and sex addict Brandon in his first two films, and even in 12 Years a Slave the Irish actor's supporting character, slave owner Edwin Epps, is personally tortured just as he is the torturer of slaves. In this largely historical story, Epps has it in for the film's protagonist, the wrongly enslaved and highly cultivated Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he tries to defend the young Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) against Epps's rage.
“Steve always quizzes me about the people I play,” Fassbender explains. “I told him that, for me, Epps was a tragic character because he's in love with Patsey and can't process that love, so ends up beating her to try and beat it out of himself. I thought he was a culmination of the ugliness of that time and of the slave trade, like a boil on the skin of the society. I see him as a victim as well and was trying to find the human being so audience members, even as horrendous as he is, can recognise things in him. I didn't just want him to be the clichéd evil slave owner-land owner.”
London-born McQueen, whose parents came from the West Indies, had wanted to make a film exploring American slavery through images.
“I had this idea of a free man in North America at that time who would have been kidnapped into slavery and goes through an assault course in the regime of slavery. I got together with John Ridley to write a screenplay but things didn't go as well as I wanted. I was talking to my wife, who suggested looking into true accounts of slavery and she came up with Solomon Northup's book about his experiences. As soon as she put the book in my hands I didn't let it go. It was just remarkable as each turn of the page was a revelation. To see the idea I had in a book was amazing.”
Since 1997, McQueen has lived in Amsterdam, where he resides with cultural critic Bianca Stigter and their two children. He was upset that he didn't know about Northup's book.
“When I realised no one else knew about it as well, that's when I decided I wanted to make the book into a film. Plan B and Brad Pitt came on board and things got rolling.”
A Hollywood star and producer dedicated to humanitarian causes together with his partner Angelina Jolie, Pitt told NBC's Today programme that he became involved with 12 Years a Slave because “It's one of those few films that cuts to the base of our humanity.” Pitt makes an appearance towards the end as one of the film's few nice white guys, a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist called Samuel Bass.
Bass had visited Epps's Louisiana farm and established a hidden friendship with Northup. Through Bass, Northup, an accomplished violinist who hailed from gentrified Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York, was able to contact his friends and family including attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of his father's former master and part of the family that took in his father in after he was freed. The solicitor brokered a deal that would grant Northup freedom in 1853, after which he wrote his tome and campaigned for abolition. At the time, he said, “Hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana.”
Ultimately, Bass risked his life and Henry Northup endured threats for assisting in ending Northup's ordeal.
While for once we might have liked to have seen Pitt in a less heroic role, McQueen insists the actor's real life endeavours (he cites his work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina) fit in well with Bass.
“Brad was interested in that level of debate,” he says. “Bass is the only one who confronts Epps in a kind of verbal boxing match. Who doesn't want to see Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt doing some meaty acting, with Epps being confronted? For me, it was a no-brainer. It was fantastic.”
Ever since 12 Years a Slave won the Toronto People's Choice Award, the film has been the Oscar frontrunner, eventually scoring nine nominations as well as earning Best Picture at the Golden Globes. The 36-year-old seasoned British stage performer and Best Actor Oscar nominee, Chiwetel Ejiofor, describes the film as a fight for Solomon's soul.
“There are moments when he thinks he can win but it's harrowing because hope is complicated,” Ejiofor says. “Hope is a double-edged sword, but to abandon hope is to lose his mind. Every sequence is calibrated and this is where Steve shapes the story in this remarkable way. He's leading you through Solomon's psychology— where he's winning in that battle for his own mind and where he's close to losing it.”
Ejiofor calls Northup's first-person account, “a gift from the past, to open a discussion not about race particularly but about human dignity and our freedoms and what we most require in the world.”
An actor of great intensity, he gladly placed himself in McQueen's hands. “Steve makes you give your 100 percent. He demands it. There is a beautiful moment in acting when you are completely engaged in the truth of what's happening and that's what Steve pushes you to find.”
McQueen, now 44, had been something of a prodigy. After studying at prestigious arts schools (Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmith's College in London and Tisch School of the Arts at New York University) in 1999 he won the Turner Prize for his film-installation work and exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He came to filmmaking with established credentials and knowing what he wanted to achieve.
McQueen though feels a little uncomfortable meeting the press, especially if he is taken to task. When asked in Toronto if a Brit might have a different perspective on Northup's story, it was a little like waving a red flag at a bull.
“I don't like to draw those kinds of lines, nationalism or whatever it is,” he responds. “I'm British, my parents come from Granada; my mother was born in Trinidad. Granada is where Malcolm X's mother was born; Trinidad is where Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase black power, was born. It's complex. Chiwetel's British Nigerian. We have Libita, who's Mexican Kenyan [Nyong'o was born in Mexico, her family moved back to Kenya when she was a baby and she studied in the US.] The film's about slavery. It's not about me be being British, it's about me being part of that history.”
As for being part of cinema history, McQueen's warts-and-all approach to the violence, which has proved difficult for some audience members to stomach, comes hot on the heels of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which adopted a more jocular, Tarantino take on slavery, even if it was also very violent.
“There are just certain things people aren't going to be able to sit through, just like a bad movie,” notes McQueen. “I understand and that's fine. But the vast majority were giving us a standing ovation. I take heart from that really.”
He considers Tarantino a colleague. “When I was in New Orleans I bumped into Quentin and we had a discussion and he said, 'Hopefully having more than one slavery film is a good thing'. It's like having more than one gangster movie, more than one western. It's great.”
12 Years a Slave is in cinemas now.