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Someday I would like to watch a Steve McQueen movie that makes me feel perfectly content about being a human being. I can say for certain that it won’t be 12 Years a Slave, however, McQueen's upcoming star-studded adaptation of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup’s autobiography. The above featurette, which comes to us courtesy of Yahoo! Movies, is subtitled “a Portrait of Solomon Northup,” and suitably gives a short but unsettling summary of the film’s events - and McQueen talks about what brought him to this incredible story. My sarcasm-laden theory is that he’s a sadist, much like Michael Fassbender is in the film.
Because a lot of footage from the movie is shown, it’s comparable to the film’s powerful first trailer, though a lot of the content is different. The trailer is successful because it puts you right in the middle of the film from the first moment, but we only know Northup because he’s played by Chiwetel Ejifor. Here we’re introduced to Northup as a free man in New York - a musician with a lovely family. And then we get to witness the hoodlums who drugged him and sold him into slavery down in New Orleans. It’s so much more disturbing this way, seeing the before and after in chronological order. Anybody who was put off by the over-the-top antics of Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained is likely going to be in complete disarray for the runtime of McQueen’s work.
The film’s producers, including Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, all speak about how this film is a slavery film like no other, and the word “unflinching” is used, which actually made me flinch. As a lifelong resident of South Louisiana, I’m quite familiar with slave history, and have always lived around racial tension. As you can imagine, getting a movie that gets slavery “right” sounds like a cup of poisoned tea to me.
In the story, Northup has his name changed to Platt by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) and is sold to a benevolent plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and later falls under the ownership of John Tibeats (Paul Dano) and Edwin Epps (Fassbender), both of whom use violent discipline instead of words to get their points across.
Though this treatment is troublesome in the trailer, it’s interesting to hear Ejifor and McQueen talk about it in terms of the film’s themes. McQueen wanted to make a film that gave viewers a character whose societal fall they could relate to in some way. Knowing that Northup was an intelligent man and different from many of those around him, the slave owners tried and failed to destroy his integrity from the outside I dare not actually put myself in his shoes, or I'd realize just how weak I really am.
Now that I’ve gotten to know the character of Northup a little better, I think I can watch the trailer below without groaning once the sweeping orchestra comes in and reminds me that this movie has “Oscar bait” written all over it.
Also featuring Brad Pitt, Quevenzhané Wallis, Michael K. Williams, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodward, 12 Years a Slave recently debuted at the Telluride Film Festival to much acclaim, and will be in theaters nationwide on October 18th.