An early favorite in the Oscar race, Steve McQueen's powerful film about one man's fall into slavery has people thinking again about the brutal institution that pervaded American culture for so long.
But the reality is that the events depicted in "12 Years a Slave" are not so neatly tucked away as a horror of the distant past. Not even remotely. "This is the perverse thing about the world — that right now there are people held in slavery," the 44-year-old director mourned during a discussion at LA's Museum of Tolerance on Wednesday night. "There's more slavery now than there was then."
An estimated 20.9 million people are now held in modern forms of slavery in the U.S. and around the world, according to Polaris Project. Compare that with the roughly 11 million slaves who were transported from Africa to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.
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"The evidence of… slavery is everywhere," McQueen said, referring to people who are trafficked for both forced labor and sexual enslavement.
The figures are simply staggering. "You shudder to think," McQueen said as he sat among a panel of experts in the field.
His greatest hope, he told the crowd, is that "12 Years a Slave," will spark a move for change. Based on Solomon Northup's memoir of surviving more than a decade of inhumane, forced servitude, he said of the film's reception, "This hopefully will cause a stir. Because there was so much amnesia about slavery. It's incredible."
McQueen also wants the Northup story to serve as a history lesson to students in the way "The Diary of a Young Girl" revealed Anne Frank's struggle to hide from the Nazis to so many over the years. He is working to help get the memoir into the national curriculum here in the United States and around Europe. "The fact that it happened in this country — Solomon's story. It was 160 years ago. I know who Anne Frank is but I don't know who Solomon Northup is: Why?"
The British director said Americans still experience the residue of early slavery. "It's the cause and effect of slavery," he said, citing modern ills like poverty, drug abuse, prison populations, bad education, and mental health issues. "The evidence of things unseen. It hasn't been dealt with. … You have to ask yourself, 'Do black people like drugs more than other people? Do they like crime more than other people? [The answer is:] No."
McQueen, who indicated he has familial ties that date back to American slavery, cited a personal example from his childhood: "I used to be beaten with a belt … and a lot of people in those days did because it was perpetuated from slavery."
The director believes it's high time for national healing — especially within African American communities — and to better educate people on the issue. "The reason for making the film is to put things right, put things straight."
"12 Years a Slave," in select theaters now, expands into more theaters this weekend.
Watch Behind-the-Scenes Footage of '12 Years a Slave':
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