The 2014 Academy Awards are only a few days away, but 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, en route to Los Angeles, managed to squeeze in a visit to the United Nations Wednesday night following a screening of his Oscar-nominated film.
12 Years a Slave, the cinematic adaptation of Solomon Northup’s book depicting his years in bondage following his capture 1841, is nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Northup, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o’s remarkable turn as Patsey, a slave in the unfortunate position as the apple of her master’s eye.
But while his film centers specifically on the pre-Civil War American South, McQueen emphasized to the audience of diplomats, humanitarians and U.N. staffers that 12 Years a Slave is a mirror for the horrors of modern-day slavery, and the 21 million victims of human trafficking and in forced labor today.
McQueen, who sat down with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss the film, said he wanted to make a film about a free man. After his wife found the 12 Years a Slave book on the Internet, everything fell into place.
“It’s one of those funny things, that sometimes things are just in plain sight,” McQueen said. “No one I knew knew the book. How did I not know this book?”
“I had to make a film about slavery otherwise I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,” McQueen said.
McQueen also discussed the power of visualizing Northup’s book.
“What it does is it brings it to life. What it does, it makes it real. It isn’t a myth, it’s a reality, and with that reality comes one’s own response,” McQueen said.
While audience members and critics are divided on how graphic the film’s depiction of slavery is, McQueen said that the violence included in the book is too extreme to put on screen.
“You couldn’t make that book into a film because it would be horrific,” McQueen said.
While the film (gladly) lacks the pantomime grotesque of Quentin’s Tarantino’s Django Unchained, we still see bodies laced with layers and years of scars and brutal whippings in 12 Years a Slave, which are even more horrifying. That violence is used as a way to help lead the audience to its most brutal scene, which McQueen also considers the film's “most honest moment”: the harrowing beating of Patsey after she was given a sliver of soap to wash with.
McQueen’s film was screened to commemorate The International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the International Slave Trade, which the U.N. will observe on March 25. The film left U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “speechless.”
“There were moments when the film was very hard to watch, but there should be no turning away,” he said.
McQueen recently blogged for the U.N. on his work with two anti-slavery organizations, Anti Slavery International and Polaris Project, calling slavery “a huge hole in the canvas of cinema.”
The cultural impact of 12 Years a Slave will continue to be felt well past awards season. The National School Boards Association is planning to distribute the film, book, and a study guide to high school students as part of an initiative arranged by Montel Williams. The Hollywood Reporter also tracked down descendants of Solomon Northup, who discussed watching his story finally brought to life.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.