Steve McQueen on ‘doing justice to slavery’

IT takes graphic on-screen cruelty and violence to awaken us to the horror of slavery, and director Steve McQueen hasn’t flinched from the challenge.

Director Steve McQueen. Picture: Getty
Director Steve McQueen. Picture: Getty

WHEN Steve McQueen decided he wanted to tackle slavery on film, he didn’t question whether depicting its horrors would be too harrowing for audiences to stomach.

“My responsibility was this: either I’m making a film about slavery or I’m not,” the director says, sighing a little as he gears up to explain – probably for the umpteenth time – the attitude he took towards the racial violence in his extraordinary new drama 12 Years A Slave. “And if you’re making a film about slavery, you have to understand that people were kept in bondage for 400 years through mental and physical torture.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Sitting alongside the film’s British star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, McQueen, who was born in London to West Indian immigrants, is adamant that the reality of slavery is something people don’t want to confront. “It’s a huge hole in people’s minds that they don’t want to think about,” he says. “But if we’re going to bring it to the fore, then we have to remember why we or, for instance, I am here today. I’m here today because members of my family were involved in slavery. Fact.”

As a film, 12 Years A Slave certainly cuts straight to the heart of the matter, largely because of the sheer perversity of the true story upon which it’s based. Set in the United States in the 1840s, it tells the story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free African American man who lived a cultured life with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York, until a potential job opportunity took him to Washington DC, where he was snatched off the street of the capital, shackled and sold into slavery. Transported to the pre-Civil War Deep South, and with no legal recourse at his disposal, Northup had to accept the new identity foisted upon him and ended up spending the next dozen years being traded between plantation overseers whose attitudes towards their property ranged from hypocritical benevolence to outright sadism.

Northup himself first documented the horrifying indignity and the terrible injustice of his ordeal in a book published in 1853. It garnered him some attention, especially amongst the abolitionist movement, which had been galvanised by the publication the previous year of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But unlike in that book, there were no saintly figures in Northup’s tale and the tome was soon forgotten. Indeed, when McQueen first came across it while researching slave narratives from the period, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t heard of it before. “I felt really stupid,” he says. “Then I realised nobody else had either.”

The source of the story’s power is obvious to Ejiofor: “We can easily understand the sense of being whipped away from everything we understand and hold dear. That’s what I think makes it such a strong book. Because actually, what Solomon is relating is something people can get on board with and quite quickly understand.”

But Northup’s story goes deeper than that. It’s so remarkable because he was at once a victim of the barbaric institution of slavery, and yet also intellectually removed from it. As the film demonstrates, he had to negotiate a tricky psychological path to suppress his well-reasoned objections to his situation in order to survive so that he might one day be able to live his old life again.

To capture this, Ejiofor drew as much as possible on the descriptions from the book and tried to connect in any way he could with how Solomon might have felt in a given moment. “That was a real privilege,” he says.

But like McQueen, Ejiofor also embraced the necessity of the film’s violence, which at one point shows Solomon being strung up by the neck and left to dangle. “It’s a strange handicap if you can’t talk about violence in a film about slavery,” says the 36-year-old London actor. “You’re not going to do justice to any of the people who were involved. You’re certainly not going to do justice to Solomon Northup and what he went through. It would be like doing a movie about the Second World War and not being allowed to shoot anybody.”

When it comes to discussing how to portray the extremes of human suffering, however, Ejiofor (who got his first big acting break in Steven Spielberg’s slave drama Amistad) alludes to the technical aspects of his craft, but clearly finds it a little gauche to talk about how emotionally draining it must have been for him personally. The same goes for McQueen. Yes, the former Turner Prize-winning artist does concede there were times when making the film proved emotionally taxing. “But we actually had a great time making this movie.”

That’s quite a contrast to the making of Hunger, his debut film about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. While shooting a riot sequence for that film (set in the Maze prison), McQueen was so overwhelmed by the violence of the scene that he broke down and started sobbing. On 12 Years A Slave he reckons that the fact that every single member of the crew felt as if they had a stake in the film created an atmosphere of camaraderie and support that allowed him and the actors to go to some disturbing places.

Among Ejiofor’s co-stars (who include Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt), it was McQueen regular Michael Fassbender who was called upon to go to these disturbing places most frequently. He plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner to whom Solomon is ultimately sold. A drunkard who is also clearly insane, he’s responsible for delivering the most sustained bouts of violence in the film, as well as the most appalling diatribes against Solomon and his fellow slaves. McQueen first met Fassbender on his audition for Hunger back in 2007. “He’s an artist and a force to be reckoned with, but there’s a magic that happens on set.”

Indeed, aside from the acclaim that Ejiofor’s performance and McQueen’s direction have been attracting, it is Fassbender who has been generating a lot of the awards heat for 12 Years A Slave. The actor, however, has stated in interviews that he won’t be campaigning for an Oscar nomination. And that’s fine with McQueen. “His campaign is on screen. That’s Michael Fassbender’s Oscar campaign. He’s done his thing. That’s it.”

The film certainly stands a good chance of being recognised by the Academy Awards (it currently leads the Golden Globe nominations, with seven in total). Heavyweight critics have already argued its importance as a searing piece of cinema, not least because it’s the first soberly told film about American slavery that doesn’t pull its punches. McQueen, however, cautions against viewing it simply as an American story. “This takes place in the United States,” he says, “but it’s a world story, because it’s about slavery and slavery was a world industry.”

• 12 Years A Slave is in cinemas from 10 January