HOLLYWOOD – “12 Years a Slave,’ which on Sunday won the Oscar for best picture, depicts with harrowing realism the true story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery before the US Civil War.
In bringing the story of Solomon Northup to the silver screen, British director Steve McQueen offered a radically different take on slavery than recent films handling the topic, like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
The best picture statuette is the pinnacle of the film’s wildly successful awards season, which included a Golden Globe, Britain’s Bafta for best film, the top prize from the Producers Guild of America and five Independent Spirit Awards.
The film — which won two other Oscars, for best supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o and best adapted screenplay — is based on Northup’s memoir published in 1853, 12 years before the abolition of slavery in the United States.
The black odd jobs man and violinist brought to life by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was living a peaceful life in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children when he was kidnapped in 1841.
He was then sold to Louisiana farmers. Twelve years would pass before he could prove his status as a free man, with the help of a Canadian abolitionist played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film.
McQueen, an amateur historian, uncovered Northup’s book, which was little known before and never adapted for the big screen, and says he knew he needed to make a film.
“When I finished, I couldn’t believe it. How did I not know this book?” McQueen said last week at a screening of the film at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
McQueen, whose other films include “Hunger” and “Shame,” did not shy away from showing audiences the raw cruelty of slavery.
The physical and psychological humiliations inflicted on slaves by their sometimes sadistic owners, the cruelest one played by Michael Fassbender, are depicted with unflinching realism.
“Slavery was such a thing that on any given day, you didn’t know what might happen to you,” McQueen told the Los Angeles Times. “You might be lynched, you might be whipped, you might be asked to wake up at four in the morning and dance.”
A favorite of critics, “12 Years a Slave” also succeeded at the box office, with about $100 million in worldwide receipts — a huge take for an independent film entirely produced outside the Hollywood bubble.
McQueen says the success proves that audiences are ready to see tough material, not just superheroes and animated fairy tales.
“I so hope that the studios understand that people want to see challenging films – films that are not sort of blockbusters. I wish that they could understand that they can actually make money,” he said.
The director also believes the film can help educate people.
Distributor Fox Searchlight has reached a deal with Penguin Books and the National School Boards Association to hand out copies of the film, Northup’s memoir and study guides to public high schools across the United States, according to media reports.
“It can change people’s lives, change people’s perspectives. Art – movies – can actually do that. Crazy, but true,” McQueen said.