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True Colours

True Colours

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Published by alexanderbisley
Steve McQueen interview
Steve McQueen interview

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Published by: alexanderbisley on May 01, 2014
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28
LISTENER
FEBRUARY 󰀲󰀲 󰀲󰀰󰀱󰀴
12 YEARS A SLAVE
S
haking hands with Steve
McQueen is one good reason
to take the interminable
Delta flight between Sydney
and New York. McQueen is
reserved when I tell him how
I love his last film,
Shame
.
There isn’t the suave enthu-
siasm directors usually offer
for such encounters; instead, he shares an insight. “They tell me I need to smile more. I’m British. We don’t smile,” he says wryly, almost smiling.
McQueen’s grip on slavery in his latest
film,
12 Years a Slave
, is as firm as his hand-
shake. The powerful film leads the Oscar
race with nine nominations and, following on from its Golden Globe for Best Drama,
should win Best Picture. McQueen’s only the
third black man to be nominated for Best
Director, although
Gravity 
’s Alfonso Cuarón
is likely to snare that award on March 2.
Speaking to media around the US pre-
miere of
12 Years a Slave
at the 2013 New
York Film Festival, McQueen has a con-
sidered, appealing presence. He has vivid
memories of finding out about slavery as a
young man. “A tremendous sense of shame,
almost a sense of embarrassment. So why I wanted to make this film was somehow to
try to embrace it and tame it and master
it, but also to make it mine,” he says in his resonant bass voice.
The autobiography of Solomon Northup,
a free New Yorker and violinist kidnapped
into slavery, was McQueen’s way into the
subject. “What I liked about that was that
everyone in the audience could relate to
Solomon being taken away from his family –
therefore you’re on that journey with him.”
McQueen’s all-consuming passion for
asking questions, for making art, is palpable.
True colours
The director of Oscar favourite
 12 Years a Slave
 talks about his portrayal of a “deep psychological wound”.
by ALEXANDER BISLEY 
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) consoles Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Right, Steve McQueen.
 
29
FEBRUARY 󰀲󰀲 󰀲󰀰󰀱󰀴
 www.listener.co.nz
A U S 
 
30
LISTENER
FEBRUARY 󰀲󰀲 󰀲󰀰󰀱󰀴
12 YEARS A SLAVE
“Could you imagine being born a slave? I think that’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being. Someone who’s
born a slave doesn’t think of themselves
as anything other than what the so-called master thinks of them, which is nothing.”
He says you see the psychological damage,
the evidence of slavery, on streets worldwide
today. “This stuff has not been dealt with. You think of the Holocaust and what hap-
pened in Germany, and how people actually
studied that, dealing with that and continu-
ing to deal with that. Slavery hasn’t even started. It’s a deep psychological wound.”
Deep, McQueen repeats two more times,
weighing the implications.
UNFLINCHING PORTRAYAL
Why is slavery a subject we haven’t come to terms with? Visibly shocked, McQueen’s big body slumps: he misinterprets the question as saying we
have
 come to terms. “Wow!” he
says, pausing, stunned, before realising what
is actually being asked. “It’s deep, it’s dif-
ficult for people to deal with. People would rather look away than look at it.”
12 Years a Slave
,
 
which had some journal-
ists in tears at the New York Film Festival
press screening, doesn’t look away. It is
unflinching in its portrayal of slavery – beat-
ings, rapes, murders, lynchings – filmed with
McQueen’s characteristic visual panache (he won the 1999 Turner Prize, for video art). He
crafts arresting, painterly images, unforget-table like Billie Holiday’s
Strange Fruit 
.“There’s a beautiful – well, not beautiful, it was terrible – rape scene of Michael Fass-
bender and Lupita Nyong’o. What I very
much liked about that was the silhouette;
the very European sort of profile on Michael
and the very beautiful African profile of
Lupita. I loved the intensity of that.”
When McQueen read the book, he had the images in his head immediately. “I think you
do all your hard work about images when
you see films all the time. So when you come to make your film, it’s like you’ve trained for
the Olympics. And when the gun goes and
you’re at the 100m line, you’re ready. All that information is in there. So I wasn’t looking at movies or references: I had it all in my head.” The colours, the palette, are important. “This
is the first time I feel like I’ve shot outdoors in an environment that is so lush.”
Solomon, movingly played by Chiwetel Eji-ofor, is carried through his ordeal by his faith. “Through the centuries, religion has kept a lot of people sane, especially in the United States. Or insane, for that matter. He had to hold onto something, otherwise all is lost.”
McQueen was more interested in Solo-
mon’s self-determination, courage and will
than his Christianity. “Of course, when
we do have that image of him joining in
with the choir with
 Roll Jordan Roll
, it was a cathartic moment.”
Conversely, Christianity was also invoked
to justify slavery. “I always thought of this film as being a science-fiction movie: some
guy lands on Earth and there’s this book called the
 Bible
 and everyone interprets it differently, and there are people who are
slaves and there are people who aren’t slaves.
It’s incredible. It’s so surreal, so far-fetched, but it was true.”
Survival is key. “What you do to survive and what you block out to survive. I’m here because some of my ancestors survived slav-ery in whatever way they could. They weren’t Bruce Willis with an AK-47 and a grenade; they had to deal with it how they had to deal with it, which was surviving. It wasn’t pretty.” Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy
 Django Unchaine
 wasn’t really McQueen’s cup of tea.
McQUEEN’S SLAVERY CONNECTION
The 44-year-old father of two missed his
Amsterdam-based family a lot while filming
in the sticky Louisiana heat. The non-driver
loves living in the Dutch capital. His days
growing up in England – the descendant of Ghanaian slaves on his mother’s side – weren’t as happy. “I come from a West
Indian family and often the situation is – and
I imagine in the United States it is maybe a
similar thing – that a lot of parents beat their
children and this comes from slavery. I was beaten by my mother and I was beaten by
my father with a belt. You see something and
you think it’s good to do to your children.” His fierce intelligence was forged at high
school, where he was dismissed as stupid
because of his dyslexia.
McQueen and actor Fassbender humanise
monstrous slave owner Master Epps. “He
doesn’t know how to deal with his con-dition of being passionately in love with
Patsey [the slave played by Nyong’o]. The only way he can deal with it – or basically destroy that love – is through violence.”
This goes back to so many things, says McQueen. “Violence is a very interesting
thing in the sense of how it perpetuates
within history, within families, with other people, and with people you love. Love is very obviously close to hate.”
McQueen is very animated on the subject
of Fassbender, so memorable in
 Hunger
and
Shame
, the director’s first two films about
imprisonment in its different forms. “It
   G   E   T   T   Y   I   M   A   G   E   S
McQueen, Nyong’o and Ejiofor at the European premiere of
12 Years a Slave
 in London.

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