Steve McQueen started the process of making a film with an idea about a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Certainly, the roots of the concept of slavery had been addressed in film, but his idea was largely unexplored. Then he learned his idea had been well-documented — firsthand.
The book “12 Years a Slave” was published in 1853. To make the book — a piece of history unto itself — into a film, he did not want to look at existing TV or film depictions of slavery. McQueen wanted to translate the book into film by doing his own research of historical material, to delve into the discovery of the demographics, clothing and trappings of the time. In that sense, McQueen says he revels in being ”an amateur” on the subject matter and experimenting with it in film. The narrative won’t let you down, he says, but the process is inherently about the risk.
For example, McQueen often will keep actors in the dark about the content of a scene, to capture the coming surprise. He doesn’t do marks, storyboards and his setup calls for using just one camera. He feels it keeps the subject matter raw.
The risk paid off, but to McQueen, in a way unrelated to the strong box office returns.
McQueen recently made a deal with Penguin Books, Fox Searchlight and worked with Montel Williams to make 30,000 copies of the book available and integrated into curricula across the United States and Britain. The aim is to give people a real understanding of slavery, just as children have learned the reality of the Holocaust through Ann Frank. And despite what many American parents think, McQueen feels age 12-14 is an ideal age to expose young people to the book.
The point, says McQueen, is not just to illuminate a time in history, but to lay bare the concept of slavery as timelessly relevant. “There are 21 million people who are actually in slavery today,” says McQueen. He pointed out that the clothes we wear are often products of this. Slavery, he feels, is never too historical to address.
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