True colours

12 YEARS A SLAVE

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The director of Oscar favourite 12 Years a Slave talks about his portrayal of a “deep psychological wound”. by ALEXANDER BISLEY
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 enthusiasm 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 handshake. 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 premiere of 12 Years a Slave at the 2013 New York Film Festival, McQueen has a considered, 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.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) consoles Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Right, Steve McQueen.

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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 happened in Germany, and how people actually studied that, dealing with that and continuing to deal with that. Slavery hasn’t even started. It’s a deep psychological wound.” Deep, McQueen repeats two more times, weighing the implications. 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 Ejiofor, 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 Solomon’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 f ­ar-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 slavery 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 Unchained wasn’t really McQueen’s cup of tea.

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 difficult for people to deal with. People would rather look away than look at it.” 12 Years a Slave, which had some journalists in tears at the New York Film Festival press screening, doesn’t look away. It is unflinching in its portrayal of slavery – beatings, rapes, murders, lynchings – filmed with McQueen’s characteristic visual panache (he won the 1999 Turner Prize, for video art). He crafts arresting, painterly images, unforgettable like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. “There’s a beautiful – well, not beautiful, it was terrible – rape scene of Michael Fassbender 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.”

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 condition 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

GETTY IMAGES

McQueen, Nyong’o and Ejiofor at the European premiere of 12 Years a Slave in London.

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Clockwise from far left, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) with the men who kidnap him; Solomon with slave-trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti); abusive slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with Patsey (Nyong’o).

has to be bloody good before you present Michael with anything. He was always my choice for Epps. He’s an amazing actor; I think he’s the most influential actor of his time right now. He’s like a Mickey Rourke when he was Mickey Rourke, or a Gary Oldman when he was Gary Oldman.” He thinks Fassbender is possibly the greatest actor since Marlon Brando, because he has soul. “People want to be an actor because of him, people want to be in a movie because of him, and people want to make a movie because he can be in a movie. So he has that kind of pull, that quality where people want to jam with him. He’s like [the band Cream’s drummer] Ginger Baker and shit!” McQueen is also spirited discussing Ejiofor, the minimalist Dirty Pretty Things ­ actor with the emotive eyes. “This is Chiwetel’s best work. At certain points in the film, he doesn’t say much – he can’t say much. It’s all about what you read from someone’s face. He’s an amazing actor.” Nyong’o delivers the third extraordinary (and Oscar-nominated) performance. “How did she find us? Over a thousand girls auditioned for this role. It was like looking for Scarlett O’Hara.” McQueen was blown away by her audition tape. “A star is born: she has this quality that doesn’t come every day.” For her part, Nyong’o was inspired. “What was so great about working with Steve is he works with actors he trusts and he creates an environment where you feel safe to risk things. He says fail, and then fail better …

he gives you the room to play and to find what he wants with him.” Alfre Woodard, who plays Mistress Shaw, adds: “He’s the kind of guy you’d pull cable for in Baghdad, so it was a dream.”

FEMALE SLAVE OWNERS’ BRUTALITY
Although cinema has been reluctant to address female slave owners’ brutality, McQueen doesn’t shy away from it in characterising Mistress Epps’ cruelty to Patsey: smashing glass into her luminous face in front of everyone; goading her husband to beat her more savagely. “We found out this one story on this plantation we didn’t film in the end where a woman knew that one of the children was spawned from her husband. She wanted to kill the child.” Covering his eyes with his hands, McQueen rejects criticism that 12 Years a Slave should have more righteous anger, that his approach is too cool. “I don’t give a f--- because often the case is that people are too careful … We could have made him into a hero. But no, Solomon Northup was a human being who survived an unfortunate situation.” McQueen is looking forward to finishing

“Often the situation is that a lot of parents beat their children and this comes from slavery.”

talking about the film. “What’s wonderful for me about this whole experience is to delve in deep about the nature of slavery, but come out sane again, because you could actually lose yourself.” New projects to tackle include a BBC series on British black people. He’s unlikely to rush into another film. “I’m astonished at how film-makers do it. It’s like being with the same girl for five years. When it’s over, it’s not a case of going on to the next chick. It’s going to take a couple of years before I even think about making another film,” he told Interview magazine in 2008. McQueen doesn’t want 12 Years a Slave to be reduced to just a discussion about race, but he does believe a lot of the criticism heaped on Barack Obama is abuse motivated by racism. Now is the hour for America to come to terms with slavery’s enduring legacy. “Hugely shameful, hugely painful, and it’s obviously [been] difficult to deal with for such a long period of time. Right now, there’s a thirst to reconnect with that past. With the situation with Trayvon Martin, with having the first black president, Barack Obama, with the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Voting Rights Act, it’s created this kind of perfect storm. People are now looking at that past and trying to find out where we’re at, where we’ve been and where we’re going to.” l
12 YEARS A SLAVE is on general release.

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