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'12 Years a Slave' receives a hero's welcome in New Orleans

EntertainmentMoviesArts and CultureShame (movie)Chiwetel Ejiofor

NEW ORLEANS -- "This movie," director Steve McQueen said, "should have 'Made in New Orleans' stamped on it."

Thanks to Louisiana's generous tax credits, it's a claim that countless films could make.

But "12 Years a Slave," opening next Friday, has a special connection to the city and the region, a point that McQueen and the film's cast made following the enslavement drama's opening of the New Orleans Film Festival on Thursday night.

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Adapted by screenwriter John Ridley from the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, "12 Years a Slave" tells the true story of how Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York, was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Northup spent a dozen years toiling for increasingly sadistic owners, unable to reach friends and family in the North who could vouch for his real status.

Northup was held captive on plantations in Louisiana, and McQueen and his production team insisted on shooting as close to the scene of the crime as possible, shooting on four main plantations.

"It was out of the question that we would shoot anywhere else," said the director of "Shame" and "Hunger."

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The Louisiana locales, which included homes in New Orleans, informed the production and the performances, the film's cast said in a question-and-answer session following the screening.

"To be surrounded by this specific environment was so powerful in relating this specific story," Ejiofor said. At one point in the production, McQueen was staging a lynching, only to realize that under the giant oak tree he was using stood the graves of runaways who had been strung up from the same limbs more than a century ago.

Alfre Woodard, who plays a slave in better circumstances than Northup, said she previously has acted on the soil of former plantations but that the making of "12 Years a Slave" was different.

"This was a lot more intense, because of the actual proximity" to the place of Northup's enslavement, Woodard said. "It becomes a place that's sacred to you -- but in the way of a family reunion that goes way, way back, because you own that land."

Parroting one of New Orleans' great celebratory traditions, McQueen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and the actors were led by a nine-piece brass band down the city's streets following the screening to a reception.

In a rowdy parade that's known locally as a second line and typically seen during funerals, McQueen and his actors (including newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who plays a slave) danced down the city's main drag of Poydras Street, followed by several hundred festival guests.

"That," said a sweaty McQueen as the parade reached its conclusion, "was extraordinary."

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