Between '12 Years a Slave' and Anne Frank: Steve McQueen Sits Down With Haaretz

Director of the Oscar favorite explains how it set about 'to tell a story that had never before been told cinematically.'

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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NEW YORK − Between 1501 and 1866, about 11 million Africans were sold into slavery or born as slaves. “There were 101 slave narratives published between 1760 and 1865 ... But of that 101, the only one describing the experiences of a free Negro who was kidnapped and then escaped was Solomon Northup,” the historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. told Time magazine in October.

“12 Years a Slave,” the latest movie by British director Steve McQueen ‏(“Hunger,” 2008; “Shame,” 2011‏), based on Northup’s book, just won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and has been nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay Adaptation. It is now playing in Israel. When I met McQueen, along with a small number of other journalists, a few weeks ago in New York, he was articulate and eager to discuss his most ambitious project to date. He spoke rapidly in reply to questions, as if there would not be enough time to fully explore the cultural and historical context of slavery and its aftermath.

“My mother was born in Grenada, in the place where the mother of Malcolm X was born,” McQueen related. “I have relatives from Trinidad, where many of the Black Power movement activists were born. That is part of my tradition, and that’s why I’d wanted to make a film about slavery for many years.”

He began by reading history books and slave memoirs, “but it was only after I’d already started to write the draft of a fictional screenplay that my wife ran across Northup’s book. From the instant I started to read it, it was clear to me that this was going to be my script. I was very surprised to discover that no one I knew had ever heard of the book, which tells such an amazing story and is so rich in details and nuances. I was filled with a tremendous desire to put this book on the screen. I thought it was a story that had to be told, precisely because so few people had been exposed to it before.”

McQueen noted that he was living in Amsterdam at the time. “I used to go by Anne Frank’s house almost every day,” he recalled. “Reading Northup’s book, I could not ignore the similarity. I felt that it was like Anne Frank, but a hundred years earlier. Like Anne Frank’s diary, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is about a person who tries to preserve humanity in a dark period characterized by a lack of humanity and by discrimination. In addition, Northup’s book is actually the only written testimony we have about someone who was sold into slavery and succeeded in being freed and even suing those who abducted and abused him.”

The film is disturbing and difficult to watch, not least because it evokes many Holocaust films. It contains long scenes in which McQueen documents in immense detail the emotional collapse of a young mother who is sold into slavery and whose two small children are taken from her, and the rape of a young black woman named Patsey ‏(an impressive debut performance by Lupita Nyong’o‏, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) by a sadistic white plantation owner ‏(Michael Fassbender, who played the lead role in both of McQueen’s previous features‏ and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

The autobiography by Northup, who had been a free man and a musician, was published in 1853. The book was little known outside the academic community engaged in the study of slavery. Northup describes how in April 1841 he was lured into going from New York to Washington to appear with two white men who styled themselves “circus artists.” The next day he woke up in an abandoned cellar on Pennsylvania Avenue, shackled to the wall with iron chains.

The “circus artists” turned out to be slave traders who abducted blacks from northern states and sold them in the South. For Northup, this was the beginning of a 12-year ordeal on plantations in Louisiana. Despite the impossible conditions, Northup was able, in an unprecedented feat at the time, to reacquire the papers attesting to the fact that he was a “free man” and be reunited with his wife and children.

The film opens when Northup ‏(Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role‏) is living with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. After being abducted into slavery, he is forced to pretend that he is an escaped slave from Georgia; every attempt to identify himself by his real name ends with flogging, blows and threats. After he is smuggled to New Orleans in a boat and sold to a plantation owner, he is moved around between plantations, and his physical and mental health steadily deteriorates. Finally, he finds himself on the plantation of Edwin Epps ‏(Fassbender‏), who has a reputation of being able “to break every slave.”

Asked whether he was influenced by the cinematic canon that deals with the Second World War and the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, McQueen offered a surprising answer: “No, and for a simple reason: movies never influence me. To watch movies and make movies are two completely different things − it’s like watching football and being a football player. In that sense, if you’re ‘looking for inspiration’ from other directors it will just interfere with developing a style of your own. In this case I worked with the book, which provided stunning material, and I didn’t look for outside influences.”

Still, some critics have compared the film to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

“That’s a flattering comparison, because I admire Spielberg as a director, but I don’t think it’s accurate. I wanted to tell a story that had never before been told cinematically. When I read Northup’s book, I asked myself, ‘How can it be that this book isn’t on the syllabus of every educational institution in America?’ And I wanted to change that.”

The book contains many harsh descriptions of violence and abuse. How did you decide what to show on the screen and what to leave out?

“The book is definitely not easy to read. Before starting on the project I made a decision: I am going to make a film about slavery. And when you make a film about slavery, you can’t avoid torture and abuse, because they are the foundations on which that racist system stood. For example, in the scene in which Solomon undergoes an attempted lynching and is hanged from a tree with only the tips of his toes barely touching the ground, it was important for me to show the other plantation slaves in the background continuing with their work routine and not trying to help him. That scene tries to exemplify how common the abuse was. They didn’t experience lynching as something exceptional that called for intervention, but as part of the hell they lived in. At the same time, they knew that if they tried to intervene, their lives would be in danger. By the way, in the book the lynching attempt lasts a whole day. Northup was hanged by the neck from a tree and was barely able to breathe for more than 10 hours. I asked myself how I could translate this prolonged torture into a scene of some minutes within the framework of a film of a little more than two hours.”

Weren’t you afraid that the scene would shock the viewers? Some viewers walked out in the middle of the premiere screening in Toronto.

“I have no interest in shocking people. I always ask myself, ‘Where is the breaking point? Where do things become too difficult to watch?’ When I read the description of the lynching in the book, I entered into Northup’s consciousness: he was hanging there for many hours and a lot of thoughts passed through his head during that torture. I wanted the viewers to undergo a similar experience, so the length of this scene is significant. Not because it creates shock, but simply because it is faithful to the book.”

Indeed, the long scene of the lynching attempt is one of the most harrowing and most brilliant in the history of cinema’s engagement with slavery. One reason for the achievement is the hypnotic cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, who also worked with McQueen on his two previous features. Their years-long cooperation has produced a singular, uncompromising aesthetic style. It rests on a relentless disparity between dark, difficult subjects − such as self-starvation as a political tool, psychological and physical torture, sexual abuse and self-destructive tendencies − and a ravishing, precise aesthetic that makes viewers utter “Wow!” more than once while watching the film.

In reply to a question, McQueen said he finds no contradiction between the beauty, the colorfulness and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his films, and their violent, highly charged content. “Having been an art student who came to the cinema as a visual artist, I am very leery of both kitsch and fetishization,” he explained. “Look at the works of Velasquez − he painted gorgeous images, some of which documented horrific wrongs. He has a way of drawing viewers to a painting and being swallowed up in the world he creates. If his paintings were ugly or sloppy, it would be harder for him to tell his audience, ‘Look at this!’ Art has to communicate with an audience, and beauty is one way to do that. When I block a frame, there are thousands of years of the history of art and visual culture behind my decisions. That’s the place I work from: the need to translate all that knowledge into images.”

One of the techniques McQueen avails himself of in order to avoid kitsch is the use of particularly long takes, which force the viewers to focus their gaze on the suffering character without providing an emotional climax or the rapid, hyperactive editing that characterizes Hollywood films ‏(and which have the effect of making us forget disturbing images quickly in favor of the next scene‏). For example, in one of the most significant scenes in “12 Years a Slave,” Epps forces Northup to flog Patsey as punishment for leaving the plantation without permission. The scene, which consists of one shot 10 minutes long, seems to last an eternity. The torture endured by the young woman is translated into a cinematic experience that manages to be oppressive and hypnotic at the same time.

Does cinematic representation have limits? Is there anything in the world that is not amenable to representation?

“No,” McQueen replies firmly. “There is no such thing, unless censorship or self-censorship is involved. We are sitting here and having a conversation because I made a film about slavery. That’s my proof that human experience can be presented, despite the historical distance. I think the discourse of the ‘unrepresentable,’ which claims that not everything can be mediated through visual or textual language, derives from the fact that people don’t want to confront images that are liable to compel them to acknowledge a harsh reality. For example, when the first images from Vietnam penetrated the public consciousness − like the image of the little girl protecting herself from napalm − many people hoped they would just disappear from their consciousness.

“The question of why brutal images need to be shown is a central issue of our time, as Susan Sontag notes in her book, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others.’ On the other hand, it’s not a new question. The argument about whether to show pictures of Jesus on the cross has been raging for 2,000 years. I do not purport to provide answers. I am an artist − it’s the critics and the researchers who need to answer those questions.”

Still, for years you did only video work, and won the Turner Prize for visual art. You didn’t turn to film until a relatively late stage in your career. Do you think there is a difference between those two media?

“Not really. One is poetry, the other is prose. They both speak the same language, but in different poetical ways. Video art is a more abstract medium; cinema is more focused on the narrative aspect.”

Despite the similarity between “12 Years a Slave” and his previous films, it’s hard to ignore the fact that McQueen’s new film is his most communicative work ‏(both “Hunger” and “Shame” contain little dialogue and the scenes are slow and hypnotic‏) and, to a certain extent, his first “Oscar movie.” The comparison with “Schindler’s List” is valid, though − it sometimes seems as though Spielberg would have been happy to adapt Northup’s book for the screen.

The feeling that this is McQueen’s most Hollywood-style film is due partly to the crew he worked with. The screenwriter was John Ridley ‏(who wrote the script for “Red Tails,” a movie about the Second World War produced by George Lucas‏). Ridley adapted Northup’s book for the screen and added key statements in the style of “I don’t want to survive − I want to live!” One of the busiest composers in Hollywood, Hans Zimmer, is responsible for the bombastic soundtrack ‏(which is very reminiscent of the music he wrote for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and for Nolan’s earlier film, “Inception”‏). And the cast includes, in addition to Fassbender and Ejiofor, a number of Hollywood stars in cameo roles, including Brad Pitt ‏(who is also listed as a producer‏), Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson.

The combination of well-known names, a fraught historical subject that has been quite popular in Hollywood in recent years, and ardent reviews have made the film and its director leading potential Oscar candidates. McQueen has been considered an experimental director whose work is geared to a small audience of cineastes who are fond of art house films. But he says, somewhat surprisingly, “I make films for an audience, and I am happy to have as broad an audience as possible see my films.”

This film will probably open a lot of doors in Hollywood for you. So far you have dealt with very depressing themes: a hunger strike, addiction, slavery. What will your next film be about?

“I think the next project will be a musical,” McQueen says, and laughs. “But only if I can persuade Fassbender to sing and dance.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave."Credit: AP
A still from '12 Years a Slave.' The necessity of showing brutal images.
From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender, after winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama. Credit: AP