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Steve McQueen: ‘There isn't a bombardment of slave movies’

DREAM TEAM: (l-r) Steve McQueen with his cast members Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor

UNDOUBTEDLY ONE of the most harrowing films you’ll see this year, 12 Years A Slave is unapologetic in its depiction of slavery.

A cinematic adaptation of the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup – a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 – the film offers an unashamedly brutal portrayal of one of the most shameful chapters of American history.

So raw is the film with its graphic depictions of torture, whipping, lynching and rape, I left the media screening emotionally drained – but also with huge anticipation to sit down with the film’s director, celebrated British filmmaker Steve McQueen.

Meeting with the director at a London hotel, I began with the only question that had engulfed my mind after seeing the film: why? Why had McQueen chosen to tell this story through film and why did he see fit to make it quite so brutal?

“It’s an important story; it’s one of those stories that needs to be told,” McQueen says of his tale, which stars British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. “The story of slavery needs to be told because it hadn’t been as far as I was concerned within cinema.

“What did Bob Marley say? If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future,” continued McQueen, who is famed for his feature films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). “A lot of black people don’t know their past. We have to open our eyes and look at it and other people have to acknowledge it.

“The repercussions of slavery are still seen today. The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.

“We have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnics group like the Jewish community have. They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery. It’s important.”

The movie is undoubtedly powerful, not least because it’s based on a true story.

Solomon Northup was a free black man; born free after his father – who was once a slave – was freed by his owner. A skilled violinist, Northup lived with his wife Anne and their three children in Saratoga, New York and was able to make money playing the violin at several well-attended hotels in the city.

But Northup’s life and liberty were dealt a devastating blow when in 1841, he met two men who introduced themselves as entertainers and convinced him to travel with them to Washington DC to play the violin as part of a circus act.

The two men turned out to be kidnappers who drugged Northup in order to sell him to a slave trader, claiming he was fugitive slave. He remained enslaved for 12 years, suffering brutal treatment at the hands of his owner, before remarkably being freed after a white abolitionist learned of his plight and wrote letters to his friends and family in Saratoga – eventually enabling him to be freed.

McQueen feels this tale remains important today, particularly for young black people.

“I found out about slavery at a very early age,” he says. “Trying to recall when I first found out about slavery is like trying to remember when I first knew my name. It’s just something that was always there. But I want to help other young people, who perhaps might not know about slavery.

“I think this book should be on the national curriculum, just as [Jewish Holocaust victim] Anne Frank’s diary is on the national curriculum. This type of story will help our young people understand the value of their freedom and their liberty; the sacrifices our ancestors were forced to make in order for us to be able to live the lives we do today. We mustn’t forget that.”

Sharing McQueen’s sentiments is US filmmaker Lee Daniels, who firmly believes that black history should be portrayed on the big screen.

Speaking to Life & Style last year whilst promoting his hit film The Butler – a movie that examined black oppression in America before and during the Civil Rights movement – Daniels rubbished a commonly held view that there are too many Hollywood films concerning slavery and racism, and praised McQueen for bringing 12 Years A Slave to Hollywood.

“For those who say they are tired of seeing [Civil Rights] movies, they need to get a life and a clue – it angers me,” Daniels told Life & Style. “That’s our history and God bless Steve McQueen for making 12 Years A Slave. God bless him. We need these kind of movies.”

Still, there are those who feel that Hollywood is only interested in throwing big budgets and huge promotion behind black films when they concern black oppression.

Adding his voice to this criticism was US presenter Nick Cannon who, last year, took to Twitter to vent: “If I see another damn slave movie…AARRRGGHHHH!!!!! I think they keep making them because they want to keep black folks on edge!”

Cannon added: “Why don’t they make movies about our African Kings and Queens?” before insisting he was heading straight to his office to “start the development” for a “new Hollywood trend [of] Black King and Queen films.”

But despite recent years perhaps giving credence to such criticism thanks to the release of films like Django Unchained (2012), The Butler (2013) and this year’s Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – which all concerned the ill-treatment of black people at the hands of white oppressors – McQueen insists that such criticism is unfounded.

“I don’t understand why anyone would consider there to be a bombardment of slave movies, because there really isn’t,” he says. “I mean, with respect, how many Will Smith films can you take? Those films are great, but why not have films that are more educational?

“I’m not only interested in slavery films. I’m interested in films about people falling in love and films that depict other sides of black life. But one cannot say that there’s been a bombardment of slave films because it’s just not true. The Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds of films about the Second Word War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than 20 films about slavery in North America.

He adds: “Some people just don’t like to look at this chapter of our history because it makes them feel ashamed. But in order to get over it, in order to understand who you are mentally and spiritually, you have to understand slavery.”

McQueen, who is of Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage, believes it’s also important to note that slavery was not just an American thing.

“This wasn’t just North American history, this was global,” he says. I’m from the diaspora of slavery. My parents are from the West Indies. My mother was born in Trinidad, my father was born in Grenada. Malcolm X’s mother came from Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘black power’, came from Trinidad. Colin Powell was born to Jamaican parents, as was Harry Belafonte.

“We come from a diaspora of slavery and it’s essential that we know our history otherwise we’ll just be walking around like zombies.”

With the early success of the film causing the autobiography to make its way onto The New York Times Best Seller’s List last year, McQueen, unsurprisingly, believes that film is a powerful medium when it comes to educating the masses.

“People don’t read as much as they used to and so cinema is extremely powerful in portraying history, particularly this type of history.”

And the director, who is currently working on an upcoming project with the BBC, believes firmly that with knowledge comes power – or in this case, empowerment.

“Slavery is often viewed as a embarrassing chapter of our history. But understanding this history can enable you to turn a perceived embarrassment into something positive; it shows you that you’re a survivor of that legacy and that can be a positive thing.

“Despite the legacy of slavery, we survived and we’re still flourishing. That’s something we should be proud of.”

12 Years A Slave is in cinemas now through Fox Searchlight Pictures

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