AUSTIN, Texas — British director Steve McQueen has finally done what no other director has been able to do: deliver a death blow to Hollywood’s moonlight and magnolia myths about the South.
In”12 Years a Slave,” the plantation homes are rough-hewn, the grounds are overgrown, the masters and mistresses are venal, and the ugly brutality of slavery takes center stage.
The film, which has been doing excellent business in early release on the East and West Coasts, joins a respected roster of efforts to tackle the slavery issue, most notably the TV miniseries “Roots,” Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” and Edward Zwick’s “Glory.” But few movies, up to now at least, have dwelled on the day-to-day brutality of life on a plantation.
“12 Years a Slave” is unflinching, just like the 44-year-old director’s other two movies: “Hunger,” about a hunger strike by a member of the Irish Republican Army, and “Shame,” a portrait of sexual addiction. Both starred Michael Fassbender, and he plays the most despicable character in”12 Years a Slave” – a vicious plantation owner who regularly rapes one of his female slaves and brutalizes the central character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
In an interview, McQueen says he was drawn to the topic of slavery because “I wanted to see that film, and I thought I should make it, and that was it.” He thought the best way into such a movie would be to have “a free man who was dragged into slavery, so that the audience would go along with him and be able to identify with him.”
And then, he says, his wife discovered the Northup book,”12 Years a Slave,” which was published in 1853, shortly after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was a best-seller at the time, but had fallen into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 1960s.
“It was a revelation,” McQueen says of the book, which deals with Northup’s being kidnapped in Washington, D.C., while visiting from his home state of New York, where he was born free. Northup was eventually shipped to Louisiana and sold into slavery on a succession of plantations. All the while, he had to hide that he could read and write as he navigated a brutal series of overseers and owners.
McQueen sets up the movie by showing us Northup’s life in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and three children and is relatively prosperous. To earn extra money, he frequently plays the violin at parties and other events, and he moves relatively freely in society.
He’s lured to Washington in 1841 by a pair of shady characters who promise that he can make some extra money playing his violin at events surrounding their traveling circus. While there, the two drug him, say that he’s an escaped slave from Georgia and sell him to a D.C. slave trader. It’s not long before he’s sent to Louisiana.
McQueen’s strategy shows the human, family side of Northup and allows the audience to witness the horror of awakening to a new reality as an enslaved man. And it makes what’s to come even more traumatic.
For McQueen, the story is personal, having grown up in Britain as the descendant of people from the West Indies. “I wanted to show what happened to African-Americans. … And you have to demonstrate how it happens. Otherwise, you’re doing a disservice to people. If you do a picture about the Holocaust, then you have to be honest and respectful.”
Because of his family’s West Indies background, McQueen says, he wanted to get at the larger issue of slavery, which was far from confined to North America and was a driving force in the colonization of the Western Hemisphere. It was especially widespread in the Caribbean and South America. “If you’re from the West Indies, you know that Stokely Carmichael, the father of the Black Power movement, was from there,” he says.
“12 Years a Slave,” however, has a distinctly Deep South feel, from the hanging moss to the thick drudgery of life in the sugar cane and cotton fields. It was filmed in Louisiana, and McQueen says he had the help of numerous historians in bringing the story to the big screen. Among the advisers was Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
When approaching a movie with such a strong point of view, directors typically try to avoid didacticism and follow the adage that you should show, not tell. That’s what McQueen does in a particularly startling scene that will most likely leave moviegoers completely rattled. It involves the attempted hanging of Northrup from a tree after he gets into a fight with an assistant overseer played by Paul Dano; meanwhile, other slaves who have fled into their cabins slowly emerge to do their chores and act as if nothing is going on.
It’s an amazing look at the dehumanization of slavery, and McQueen says the scene was crucial to showing us “the physical act of slavery.”
“The people are coming out and going about their daily business because they have to,” McQueen says. “If they help him, they know they’ll be strung up, too.”
Such moments make”12 Years a Slave” quite hard to watch. But the movie, which is bound to get multiple Oscar nominations, is clearly the most important of the year.