'12 Years a Slave:' an American story unearthed by British filmmaker

Mon Sep 9, 2013 11:22am EDT
 
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By Mary Milliken

TORONTO (Reuters) - Set in the plantations of sweltering southern Louisiana and based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man sold into slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is unmistakably an American story.

And yet, much is being made of the provenance of a film that has won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences at festivals in Toronto and Telluride and been touted as a top early contender for Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen, whose idea it was, is British.

"It's strange that it took a Brit, Steve McQueen, to ask a question 'Why are there not more movies on American slavery? And he's absolutely right," Brad Pitt, a producer on the film who also has a role in it, said at its Toronto premiere on Friday.

After a surprise screening of the movie in the Colorado mountain town of Telluride in late August, trade publication Variety wrote a glowing review, but said it was a "disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face."

McQueen plays down the role his nationality might have, as does the actor who plays the lead role of Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Briton of Nigerian origin. Both have slavery in their family histories and believe in the global nature of the story.

"It was just one of those stories that I felt needed to be told," McQueen told Reuters. "My ancestors were slaves, of course. I come from West Indies. I went through the whole Americas, South America, West Indies and I got the idea of North America and the idea of this free man."

McQueen, who won over critics with his first two dramas "Hunger" and "Shame," also feels kinship with the United States, due to his family diaspora and the links between the West Indies and American black culture.   Continued...

 
Actor Michael Fassbender (R) and director Steve McQueen attend a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, September 7, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill