Jeremiah Ellison was all smiles Saturday afternoon as strangers congratulated him and other activists in the lobby of the Regal Cinema in Brooklyn Center after a screening of “12 Years a Slave.” The visual artist had reasons to be pleased.
The director of the noted film, Steve McQueen, was present in Brooklyn Center largely because of Ellison, and McQueen publicly thanked him and others for the noise they made to make it happen.
McQueen, an English filmmaker who lives in the Netherlands, was in town for a later event at the Walker Art Center, which is having a retrospective of his films.
Ellison and others wrote a letter expressing concerns that ordinary people, especially people of color, would not have access to McQueen given the power dynamics of mainstream institutions vis-à-vis communities of color.
Saturday afternoon’s sold-out screening and subsequent discussion were attended by students and professionals, artists and activists.
“Our protest wasn’t about us getting tickets for ourselves to the Walker event — we got tickets that we gave away to some kids on the North Side,” Ellison said. “It was about this director of this film coming to town and not being able to see the descendants of the people who this film is about.”
The movie, which has generated a lot of Oscar buzz, takes an unblinking look at the brutality of slavery. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y., who is kidnapped into bondage in 1841 and taken South. He experiences and witnesses unspeakable horrors in the fields and plantations of Louisiana.
McQueen said Northup’s autobiography is akin to Anne Frank’s diary. One of his goals, McQueen said, was educational. “I want the book to be on the national curriculum here in the United States and in Europe,” he said.
Retired Macalester College history Prof. Mahmoud El-Kati, who led the post-screening discussion, noted that slavery officially lasted for 244 years. “It is the longest chapter in America’s history,” he said, yet it is surrounded by “a conspiracy of silence.”
McQueen fielded questions from the audience about specific themes and characters in the film, whose end elicited tears from many in the audience.
McQueen, who said he thinks of the silver screen as “a huge mirror,” invoked the 150th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, the 1963 March on Washington and the killing of Trayvon Martin to explain the continuing relevance of some of the themes present in the movie. But he did not want to be pinned to any particular social agenda. “For me, it’s very simple. I just have to make the work,” he said. “That’s the Mount Everest for me.”
McQueen is not the first to have made a movie based on Northup’s book. Filmmaker Gordon Parks did a PBS movie in 1984, “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.”
Parks’ relative, Twin Cities artist Robin Hickman, was on hand Saturday. “This is part of a larger story that needs to be told far and wide,” she said. “I’m happy for him and us that we’re all here.”