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'12 Years a Slave:' an American story unearthed by British filmmaker

Actor Michael Fassbender (R) and director Steve McQueen attend a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto Interna
Actor Michael Fassbender (R) and director Steve McQueen attend a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto Interna

By Mary Milliken

TORONTO (Reuters) - Set in the plantations of sweltering southern Louisiana and based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man sold into slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is unmistakably an American story.

And yet, much is being made of the provenance of a film that has won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences at festivals in Toronto and Telluride and been touted as a top early contender for Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen, whose idea it was, is British.

"It's strange that it took a Brit, Steve McQueen, to ask a question 'Why are there not more movies on American slavery? And he's absolutely right," Brad Pitt, a producer on the film who also has a role in it, said at its Toronto premiere on Friday.

After a surprise screening of the movie in the Colorado mountain town of Telluride in late August, trade publication Variety wrote a glowing review, but said it was a "disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face."

McQueen plays down the role his nationality might have, as does the actor who plays the lead role of Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Briton of Nigerian origin. Both have slavery in their family histories and believe in the global nature of the story.

"It was just one of those stories that I felt needed to be told," McQueen told Reuters. "My ancestors were slaves, of course. I come from West Indies. I went through the whole Americas, South America, West Indies and I got the idea of North America and the idea of this free man."

McQueen, who won over critics with his first two dramas "Hunger" and "Shame," also feels kinship with the United States, due to his family diaspora and the links between the West Indies and American black culture.

Ejiofor, in the biggest role of his career, believes slavery is something that has defined the experience of half the planet.

"I am Igbo, my family is Igbo from the east of Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of Igbo were taken from southeast Nigeria to Louisiana," said Ejiofor.

'ASSAULT COURSE OF SLAVERY'

Ejiofor as Northup begins the film as a free man, a musician living a good life with his wife and two children in New York state. But then he falls prey to two men who drug him and sell him into slavery and there begins his descent into a pre-Civil War world he never imagined could be so cruel.

"The reason I got the idea of the free man is that you could identify with him," said McQueen. "When he is captured and put into slavery, you go on this journey with him, you go through this assault course of slavery, you are with him."

McQueen was going around in circles to develop the story when his wife found the autobiography of Northup.

At first in the movie, Northrup tries to convince everyone he is a free man, but soon learns that showing his intelligence makes him a threat to the slave traders and owners. He works hard, looks out for others and mostly keeps his head down.

But then he finds himself in the ownership of Edwin Epps, a complex and brutal master played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender who drinks heavily and is deeply in love with the slave Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o.

Solomon tries to protect her from Epps, but the slave owner's desperation leads him to extremes of physical and mental punishment, played out in thick heat and muck, steps from his stately plantation house .

After 12 years, Solomon wins his release from slavery, thanks to the mediation of a Canadian abolitionist played by Pitt, and leaves Epps' plantation with a look of stunned disbelief in his eyes.

After the screening of "12 Years a Slave" in Telluride, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "By the time the theater emptied out, few hadn't shed a tear in response to the emotional roller coaster on which they had just journeyed."

Pundits have predicted a large number of Oscar nominations for the film, which was made for a relatively small budget below $20 million. The predicted nominations include best picture.

Ejiofor stresses that "Americans were deeply involved in telling this story" - from cast, to crew, to producers, but adds that the story is an international one that impacts everybody with its underlying theme of human respect.

In any case, he says, there should be no national boundaries when it comes to art and film.

"If somebody responds to a piece of material and wants to tell that story and wants to pursue telling the story in that way, then they do," he said.

"12 Years a Slave" from Fox Searchlight Pictures opens in North American theaters on October 18.

(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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