Toronto: Steve McQueen Says '12 Years a Slave' Goes Beyond Race

BAFTA Awards | London, Feb. 12
Charlie Gray

Steve McQueen, whose "Shame" was nominated for outstanding British film.

The harrowing drama made its Toronto debut Friday night. "For me, this film is about how to survive an unfortunate situation," the auteur said.

TORONTO -- In a feisty exchange at the Toronto Film Festival, filmmaker Steve McQueen said he didn't make 12 Years a Slave to spark a conversation about race, but to reveal how people survive terrible situations.

McQueen, whose harrowing slavery drama made its Toronto debut Friday night, appeared with some of his cast at an afternoon press conference, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard.

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In the Fox Searchlight film, Ejiofor plays a free black man who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film is based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup and was produced by Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner's Plan B Entertainment. (Pitt, who has a small role in the movie, didn't attend the press conference.)

The press conference began with moderator Johanna Schneller of The Globe and Mail asking McQueen if he intended for the film to spark a conversation about race in North America.

"I made this movie because I want to tell a story about slavery and a story that hasn't been given a platform in cinema. It's one thing to read about slavery, but when you see it within a narrative, it's different. Now if that starts a conversation, wonderful, excellent," McQueen said.

"But for me, this film is about how to survive an unfortunate situation. I don't know what kind of conversation you are talking about. It's a very broad question, and I don't know what you mean," he continued. "I hope it goes beyond race. You're trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved, but it's not entirely about that."

McQueen, whose film begins rolling out in U.S. theaters on Oct. 18, also bristled when Schneller asked Paulson if it was difficult to play the part of Mary Epps, the wife of a plantation owner (Fassbender).

"These are actors, and this is drama. Without people playing people who are appalling, there would be no drama," explained the director. "It's their job, it's what they do. They are athletes. If they couldn't do it, I'd get someone else. Come on."

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Ejiofer, a well-known British actor, added that 12 Years a Slave is about "dignity, not race," to which McQueen responded, "hear, hear."

On a lighter note, one journalist asked Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o if she considered herself Mexican as well as African. Nyong'o replied that while she was born in Mexico, her family moved back to Kenya when she was a toddler. As a teenager, she returned to Mexico to learn Spanish.

"I'm a Mexi-Kenyan," the actress quipped.