British filmmaker Steve McQueen said he hoped his new movie “12 Years a Slave” would open up fresh, frank discussion about the slave trade.
“There’s a lot of shame about slavery in America and the West Indies,” McQueen told a press conference on Saturday.
“There’s nothing to be forgiven for, it wasn’t your fault, this is what happened to you.”
The film is based on a firsthand account of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, recalling the horrors of grueling labor, daily humiliation and families torn apart.
Its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival received a standing ovation, as well as sobs, while some in the audience left early over the film’s graphic portrayal of unspeakable torture of slaves during this period in history.
McQueen and the cast made no apologies.
The story is “a gift from the past to open a discussion, not about race, particularly, but about human dignity and our freedoms and what we most require in the world,” said Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup.
“And the only way to really open that discussion is to see all sides of it.”
Michael Fassbender, who plays cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps, added: “History writes it the way it is… It is what it is… It’s real.”
Sarah Paulson, in the role of Epps’s wife who is responsible for much suffering, said she was deeply affected by her character’s cruelty.
“The only way I could put myself in that headspace was to find the reason why, and not as a justification for deplorable behavior, but as a way into it as an actor,” she said.
Her co-star Alfre Woodard urged audiences to take in the film’s “very complex portrait of life in a slave economy” and resist the urge to use modern principles to judge historical figures and their actions.
“When we look at this film and when we look at history, we have to understand that people live smack in the middle of the times that they live,” she said.
“I think we can’t judge in black and white.”
McQueen said he actually views the film as a love story, a man’s desperate struggle to return to his family.
But the film came about after McQueen felt there was a lack of movies about slavery.
“I wanted to see images from that particular past. I wanted to experience it through images,” he said.
He was given Northup’s book as he struggled to pen the screenplay, and was immediately inspired to turn the book about this man and his refusal to let slavery extinguish his spirit into a film.
It was coincidence that director Quentin Tarantino released last year his Academy-Award winning “Django Unchained,” a western about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) traveling across the United States to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington).
Critics have compared “Django” to “12 Years” in the lead-up to its release.
McQueen recalled bumping into Tarantino recently.
“He said, ‘I hope that it’s okay to have more than one slavery film,’” McQueen said.
“I said, ‘Of course, it’s like having more than one gangster movie or having more than one western,’” the filmmaker added.
“They’re two different movies about slavery.”