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The fall festivals that precede the Oscar race are in full swing. And one film has already emerged as an awards frontrunner: "12 Years a Slave." It's a brutal, realistic portrayal of a uniquely American story, yet it's directed by a black British filmmaker and features an international ensemble of actors. NPR's Bilal Qureshi explores how a wave of black artists from Britain is changing the portrayal of race on American screens.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "12 Years a Slave" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. Cameron Bailey is the festival's artistic director.
CAMERON BAILEY: It is a curiosity that there is no great film that is at the center of American cinema that addresses one of the most profound founding principles of the United States of America.
QURESHI: Critics immediately declared the film a landmark achievement, calling it necessary and essential.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) I was born a free man, lived with my family in New York.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Be good for your mother.
EJIOFOR: Until the day I was deceived...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To Solomon.
EJIOFOR: ...kidnapped, sold into slavery.
QURESHI: "12 Years a Slave" has been described as the "Schindler's List" of slavery films. But unlike that film, there's less hope and historical redemption in the new movie. So that became the first question for director Steve McQueen from a reporter at the film's Toronto press conference.
JOHANNA SCHNELLER: Can we talk about race in America? Is it a possible - is it possible to have that subject in North America and have people be frank? Are we all too careful? Are we all too fearful? What are your feelings about that?
STEVE MCQUEEN: I don't know about a conversation. I don't know what kind of conversation you're talking about. You have to be slightly more specific.
MCQUEEN: Because it's very broad. I'm trying to sort of cover all bases here, but I don't know what you mean.
QURESHI: After the press conference, McQueen was a little less annoyed.
MCQUEEN: Of course it is about race, but at the same time, it goes beyond the boundaries of that, in a way that life always does. We always want to, you know, put ourselves into boxes or put sort of frames around things. But actually, most of the time, things sort of break out of those frames.
QURESHI: McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" was one of several international productions with black British actors front and center to premiere in Toronto this year. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" stars Idris Elba as the iconic leader.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Nelson Mandela, do you plead guilty or not guilty?
IDRIS ELBA: (as Nelson Mandela) My lord, it is not I but the government that should plead guilty.
QURESHI: The adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel "Half of a Yellow Sun" portrays Nigeria's violent path to nationhood, following the end of British rule.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HALF OF A YELLOW SUN")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's happened. There's been a coup.
THANDIE NEWTON: (as Olanna) What's happening in Lagos?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This is a beginning.
NEWTON: They're not about race, absolutely. None of these movies.
QURESHI: Thandie Newton was in Toronto with the cast of "Half of a Yellow Sun."
NEWTON: Being defined as a black actress because, let's face it, the United States defines films worldwide. So there's an assumption that if you're a black actress, you have a black American sensibility, black American. And I'm black English, and it's completely different.
QURESHI: That difference allows for a kind of critical distance when dealing with issues that carry a lot of baggage in this country, according to writer Gary Younge. He's black, British, and covers America for the Guardian newspaper. And Younge says unlike the defining chapters of African-American history - enslavement, emancipation, the great migration to the North and the civil rights movement - the black British experience is an immigrant experience of those who came to the island from Britain's colonies.
GARY YOUNGE: We are fewer in number. We have been in Britain less long. Our civil rights movement took place abroad in the colonies, in India and Jamaica and Nigeria and elsewhere. I grew up with a map of Barbados on the wall, with a flag of Barbados on the door. I was 17 before I would really admit I was British.
QURESHI: And Thandie Newton says for her the distance between being black in Britain and the United States isn't just the Atlantic. It's a difference rooted in Africa itself.
NEWTON: My mum literally grew up in Zimbabwe, and it's a completely different sensibility, I mean completely, I mean, really, even in an ancient sort of perspective because, you know, the slave trade happened in the west of Africa, and that's the history of African-Americans is West Africa. So I'm in the south and the east. And it wasn't part of that part of Africa's experience. So we're talking like centuries of cultural difference.
QURESHI: In America, that's a little more than four centuries. African-American actress Alfre Woodard, who stars in "12 Years a Slave," told NPR's TELL ME MORE that most American filmmakers just don't want to go there.
ALFRE WOODARD: We were a slave economy longer than we've been anything else, but yet, black people don't want to hear about it. They feel shame or anger. White people don't want to hear about it. They say, we didn't have any money. We didn't know anything. I don't even know who the plantation people were. And all the new arrivals in the past 50 years are like, you know, I don't even know what you all are talking about. So as Americans, we want to be balanced and successful as a nation, as individuals, but we want to deny that we ever had a childhood.
QURESHI: And because that childhood wasn't part of Thandie Newton's background, she says she felt freer to play Sally Hemings in the film "Jefferson in Paris" or the ghost of slavery in "Beloved."
NEWTON: One of the reasons why I had a perspective that freed me up to play the role of a slave without a very powerful sense of betrayal and the baggage of that was because it wasn't in my history. It's not, you know, I saw it from a completely sort of fresh perspective.
QURESHI: American audiences didn't see "Beloved" from that perspective. The film was a commercial disaster. But this summer, its star Oprah Winfrey returned to screens in Lee Daniels' "The Butler," a more hopeful film about the path to racial reconciliation. It's earned more than $100 million at the box office. Again, Gary Younge.
YOUNGE: America is still where the money is. So if you want to make films, which cost a lot of money, then chances are you are going to end up in America for some time.
QURESHI: And Younge says if you're a black artist from Britain with American dreams, that means you will eventually face the race question.
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: You have to be willing to be uncomfortable.
QURESHI: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a MacArthur Prize-winning Nigerian novelist. She says after years of living in America, she's learned how to maintain a critical distance from that well-meaning, often awkward American conversation about race.
ADICHIE: People are so uncertain about how to deal with it. And I do think that that can be very stifling for a creative person because, on the one hand, it's a very good thing, which is that America is a country that tries to nurture the idea of being inclusive, being sensitive, that sort of thing. But then you wonder at what point does it clash with the idea of being truthful?
QURESHI: When I asked director Steve McQueen if he feels any responsibility to engage in the American conversations that will inevitably emerge out of "12 Years a Slave," he said...
MCQUEEN: I don't have to. I don't have to. I'm a filmmaker. My responsibility is to the film and that's it.
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: This is NPR News.