NYFF 2013: Does ’12 Years a Slave’ deserve ‘hard to watch’ label?


NEW YORK -- Walking out of the theater after the official U.S. debut for Steve McQueen’s slavery tour de force “12 Years a Slave” on Tuesday, a viewer could be heard adding skepticism to her admiration.

“I wanted to ask about why there were so few redeeming characters,” she said as she spoke to her friend after a post-premiere Q&A at the New York Film Festival. “I mean, in most movies you don’t find even the wife of the plantation owner part of the problem.”

She never did ask her question. But McQueen would have had a ready answer. In an interview with The Times backstage a few hours earlier, he parried when asked how he felt about the “hard to watch” label that has fallen on many gritty race-themed dramas and could be attached to his, too.


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“The truth can sometimes be hard to watch,” he said with his trademark directness. “But if we want to understand where we’re going, we have to understand our past.”

The comment echoed the director’s thought at a news conference the day before in which the he said that he believed the Brad Pitt-produced movie was a way to “delve into the idea of slavery and come out sane again.”

On Tuesday, “12 Years a Slave” made an important stop in its bid to stir up more delving. Directed by the exacting helmer behind “Shame” and “Hunger,” the film is of course a fact-based story about the free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who spent more than a decade in captivity on plantations in the antebellum South after being kidnapped from his home in upstate New York. The movie will open in limited release Oct. 31, when it will seek to follow in the box-office footsteps of another civil rights-themed movie this season, “The Butler,” and capture the awards many have pegged for it.

McQueen, writer John Ridley and much of the cast — including Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson (playing the aforementioned plantation-owner’s wife) and It Girl newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (playing a slave who becomes a target for Fassbender’s cruel plantation owner) — gathered on the Lincoln Center stage after the premiere screening.

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Eijofor described the film and his title character as going far beyond the particulars of his circumstance. “Solomon has what we would call, I think, a spirit that can’t be removed. Which is why it always struck me as a story about everybody,” the actor said, adding, “He starts out in a battle for his freedom, but he realizes he’s in a battle for his mind.”

The movie already has garnered comparisons to other sociologically minded period dramas -- particularly 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” -- that, by examining the prejudices of a previous era, help shed light on our own.

“Brokeback” of course moved the conversation forward on gay rights, became a cultural sensation and a big box-office hit to boot, though its willingness to put rarely addressed subjects on the table may have hurt it on the awards circuit, as the movie fell short of the best picture Oscar.

McQueen said in the interview that he’s not focused on those prospects or the Oscar front-runner status his film was given coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where some journalists made I’ll-eat-my-shoe proclamations of best picture glory. He said he’s mostly been struck by the audience reaction, which he described as “cathartic” for them. What he’s found most satisfying personally, he said, was just “the idea that we could make this film.”

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That was hardly an easy task, and was aided greatly by the presence of Pitt’s Plan B, which developed the Northup memoir on which the film is based. Pitt’s company (the actor also costars in the film as a moral Canadian) teamed up with the production and financing entity River Road and eventually set up the project at New Regency, whose deal at Fox then enabled a release from the specialty division Fox Searchlight, currently behind all of the rollout plans.

The key to Searchlight’s efforts in attracting an audience will be emphasizing the movie’s timeliness. In that respect executives will have some help, what with news events and McQueen’s own willingness to address how the movie plays into current events.

“Right now there’s a thirst to see where one is going, to see where one is at,” the director said at the Q&A on Tuesday. “Trayvon Martin, Obama, 150 years of abolition, 50 years since the March on Washington,” he said. “It’s created a perfect storm.”

Equally important in spreading the word will be an emphasis of the personal journey its filmmaker took, which many in screenings have said echoed their own.

“I think it’s been brewing inside me since I’ve had consciousness,” McQueen said when asked how long he’d wanted to make the movie. “Someone asked me the other day when was the first time you heard about slavery. And I can never remember. All I can remember is shame and embarrassment.”


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