Monday, September 9, 2013

TIFF 2013: Director Steve McQueen & His Artists: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o & Michael Fassbender - "12 Years a Slave"

There are few films that can affect me the way that Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave did. Once in a while, I may shed a tear when a film adequately depicts sorrow, but in 12 Years a Slave, I literally cried. And more than once. It's that powerful.

[Top Left to Right: Director Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o & Michael Fassbender]

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was born a free black man in Saratoga, New York in 1808. In 1841, as a gifted violin musician, he was approached by two white concert promoters, who offered him a lucrative opportunity to perform in Washington, DC. Leaving his wife and two children for what was supposed to be a 3-week engagement, Northup was abducted and sold into the slave trade in Louisiana. The film recounts Northup's gruelling fight for survival and relentless struggle to return to his family.

It's McQueen's gift for filmmaking that builds the drama of Northup's incredible autobiography. The film is shot out-of-sequence, slowly revealing the mystery of his abduction and his eventual plan of escape. Moreover, McQueen doesn't spare us from the atrocities perpetrated by slavers. His camera keeps you fixed on their violence. When a plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) brutally beats his slave girl ( Lupita Nyong'o) for a petty offence, we see blood spray and flesh torn with each crack of his whip. Indeed, McQueen has no intention of having audiences leave the theatre without comprehending the real horror of slavery. 

The performances are equally astounding. Ejiofor plays Northup with grace and strength. The film heavily relies on his performance to penetrate the hearts of audiences and he effortlessly succeeds at the task. Fassbender delivers an equally piercing performance as Epps, Northup's menacing plantation owner. Epps is exceptionally vicious to his slaves. In lesser hands than Fassbender's, the character could have turned out to be a ridiculous parody. In a film filled with extraordinary veteran actors, it's great to see a breakout performance by virtual newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. She easily holds her own against 12 Years' talented cast. It shouldn't come as any surprise if we see all three of these actors at next year's Academy Awards.

Much to the delight of the Ryerson audience, McQueen and the principal actors (sans Brad Pitt) appeared after the screening for Q&A. During this time, McQueen proudly looked at his cast and said, "I don't work with actors, I work with artists." It was obvious that they all had great respect for one another. TIFF's Artistic-Director Cameron Bailey encouraged the audience to give Ejiofor an enthusiastic applause for his incredible performance and McQueen asked the same for Fassbender, which they gladly accommodated. Fassbender added in order to portray such a despicable human being, he had to try to identify with him: "...sadly, he was a product of his time," he said.

12 Years a Slave opens October 18th.

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