By Steve Persall | Times Movie Critic
One day after 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, director Steve McQueen was asked the question he'll be answering all the way to the Oscars:
Why haven't there been more movies like his, seriously addressing the issue of slavery with such passionate realism?
Never one to mince words, McQueen, 44, the provocative mind behind 2011's sex addiction shocker Shame, pounced on the topic.
"The question is: Why are there so many movies about the second World War?" he countered, at an open-air panel in a Telluride park.
"In America . . . looking at bad guys generally as Nazis is okay," the London-born filmmaker said. "But when you're talking about home you really don't want to be perceived as bad. Now things have changed. People are ready to have that dialogue, looking at themselves similar to the way Germans have looked at themselves.
"It's a healing process, and it's full of love in a way . . . examining ourselves, looking at the past to deal with the present. For a long time people weren't ready to look at that and I think now they are."
They had better be. 12 Years a Slave is unflinching in re-enacting the inhumane treatment described in Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir, inflicted on him and other slaves. McQueen considers it a necessity for honesty. The most shocking example is a bullwhipping of Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), in a single, extended and excruciating take, the camera circling around her and her torturer, exposing his flesh-flayed results.
"The audience is not allowed to relax," McQueen said. "The (editing) cut, when it happens, is a kind of relief; you can breathe now. But I wanted people to focus. . . . As soon as you cut, the tension goes away."
McQueen's insistence on violent realism extended to Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose soulful portrayal of Northup makes him a best actor Oscar frontrunner. Ejiofor is familiar to audiences for playing Lola the transvestite in 2005's Kinky Boots but this role and performance is a career signature. The British actor figures he subjected himself to more punishment than his stunt double.
"There was something about feeling the beatings, feeling the pain," Ejiofor said at Telluride. "Sometimes I was protected. Sometimes not so much. Feeling that discomfort and that pain was very useful to sort of channel Solomon's journey, connecting to the experience as it must have been."
That includes one of the movie's strongest images, of Solomon being lynched, with only tiptoes keeping him barely breathing. Northup's description of the incident in his book impressed Ejiofor, who re-enacted the incident for one long take, mostly intact in the movie. "I did want to feel that, a little bit," he said. "But then I did become aware of the fact that it hurts."
At one point while dangling, Ejiofor wondered how much film the camera held in its magazine, when McQueen would say "cut." "I was thinking: 'Is this a large mag or a small mag? When's it going to run out?' But you trust the director, and you trust how far you're going to go."
In a later telephone interview, Nyong'o said McQueen's "high standard for truth" makes 12 Years a Slave into a reverent inspection of slavery, and a tribute to those who suffered.
"It was a very respectful set, a very sacred set when it needed to be," Nyong'o said. "We recognized the power and meaningfulness of it. . . . When Steve said 'cut' we went off set and enjoyed each other's company, enjoyed the freedom these people granted us. At the end of the day we have them to thank for our freedom."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.