Telluride 2013: “12 Years a Slave”

The Telluride Film Festival had sneak preview showings of “12 Years a Slave” as well as providing the welcome opportunity of getting insights from the film’s director Steve McQueen (“Hunger”), stars, and producer Brad Pitt. The film had an enthusiastic audience response, becoming a leading award contender.

“12 Years a Slave” is a powerful and harrowing experience. The film is based on the 1853 book by Solomon Northup about his true experiences, written only a year after he regained his freedom. Screenwriter John Ridley’s adaptation contains a wide variety of individualized personalities.

In 1841, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Dirty Pretty Things”) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, NY with his wife and family. His violin playing is applauded at parties. On a pretext of a well-paying job, he is lured to Washington, DC, drugged and sold into slavery. The truth of his background is disbelieved.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

Ejiofor gives an exceptional performance of emotional depth, conveying Northup’s incomprehension, torment, and determination to survive. He must hide his knowledge so as not to seem a threat to his less intelligent overseers.

Director Steve McQueen who realistically recreated a prison hunger strike in “Hunger” (2008) presents a vivid and unflinching view at the misery caused by the widespread institution of slavery, an antidote to films like “Gone with the Wind” that romanticized the era. McQueen gives the film a strong physicality, particularly in scenes of slaves being tortured. Northup’s story is extremely compelling. The film was shot on plantations in Louisiana.

Northup’s first “master” is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Fifth Estate”), a preacher who holds prayer services for his slaves, but still treats them as property. He shows an interest in Northup.

In a memorable scene, for punishment, Northup is hanged by a noose and, for survival, desperately stretches so that his toes can touch the ground. Behind him the other slaves go about their daily routines.

Northup is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, “Hunger”) as payment on a debt. Northup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the hardest working slave owned by Epps. Epps is attracted to Patsey, but that does not prevent him from violent treatment toward her. Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story”) is aware of her husband’s feelings toward Patsey and is subtly sadistic toward her.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

At Telluride, Fassbender said that he saw a tragic side to Epps, as he’s in love with his slave and conflicted in how to respond. This insight gives his performance a complexity so that Epps becomes much more than a conventional Southern villain.

Nyong’o makes a notable film debut with an intense and moving performance as Patsey. She is from Kenya and studied at Yale.

Alfre Woodard (TV’s “Steel Magnolias”) makes a distinctive impression in a brief role as a former slave who has become a slave owner. She befriends Patsy and Northup.

After the screening at Telluride, there was a fascinating Q&A.

Brad Pitt at Telluride

Brad Pitt at Telluride

Brad Pitt is one of the producers of “12 Years a Slave” and also plays a supporting role. At Telluride after the screening, he described Steve McQueen, the film’s director, as having a “unique and special voice”. McQueen had asked him why there were no more films on slavery. Pitt said there are ” lots of movies on the Holocaust…why not slavery?…It took a Brit (director McQueen) to do so.” Pitt described himself as “humbled and proud” from his association with the film. He said “12 Years a Slave” is “why I wanted to be” making films.

Chiwetel Ejiofor at Telluride

Chiwetel Ejiofor at Telluride

Chiwetel Ejiofor found the story of Solomon Northup, whom he portrays in the film, as “incredible” and “beautiful”. He said the “nasty scene” where Northup is hung as a “crucial part of film” where he “recognized he was not going to break.” He described his character as a “contemporary man…spiritual, soulful”, with “extraordinary strength”. Ejiofor added that the film is about “human respect” and “taking a stand.”

Lupita Nyong’o said that making her first film combined the “oppressive heat” in Louisiana of over 100 degrees with a “joyful set”.

Michael Fassbender at Telluride

Michael Fassbender at Telluride

Michael Fassbender who portrayed a dying hunger striker Bobby Sands in McQueen’s “Hunger” joked “I like to be punished and “Steve punishes.” After seeing newcomer Nyong’o act, he thought “Shit, I’ve got to do my homework”. He described her as having the “hunger of someone new”.

Steve McQueen at Telluride

Steve McQueen at Telluride

Director Steve McQueen described “12 Years a Slave” as having “a lot of hope”. He added that the wants his work to be “as direct and real as possible”.

At a later outdoor panel, McQueen said he has “no ground rules”. Ejiofer said that for the hanging scene in the film it was “important to connect and feel a little trust in the director” for “how far you’re all going to go”. He later added that “I haven’t found limits”.

Both McQueen and Ejiofer agreed that risk in filmmaking is “important”. Ejiofer described the first take as “really important” because the “tension and excitement” of the first time can be the “most remarkable”.

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