Last night, in the shadow of the Superdome, the 24th Annual New Orleans Film Festival kicked off in style at the newly reopened Civic Theatre. The eight day festival (October 10-17) is spread out across various venues throughout the city and over 200 films will be screened, in addition to numerous industry panels and parties. Like the local film industry itself, the New Orleans Film Festival continues to grow and grow every year – and Thursday night’s extravagant festivities were clear proof of that.
Selected to open the festival this year was the highly anticipated, New Orleans-shot slavery drama 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the real life slave memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid 1800s. He labored for over a decade on various plantations in Louisiana before someone finally believed his story, which led him regaining freedom and returning home to his family.
The film premiered to great acclaim a few weeks ago at the Telluride Film Festival and also played recently at the Toronto International Film Fest. The film has already garnered a tremendous amount of award season buzz. 12 Years a Slave opens in a limited theatrical release next weekend (Friday, October 18), but no New Orleans date has been officially announced yet.
As for last night’s local premiere, just as the sun began to set, the stars came out – both in the sky and on the red carpet. Director Steve McQueen and several of the film’s actors – including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Dwight Henry, and Alfre Woodard – were in attendance and walked the red carpet beforehand. Joining them at the event were several local notables, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Rita Benson-LeBlanc.
For the crucial role of Solomon, director Steve McQueen found his man in Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, American Gangster, Inside Man), a celebrated British actor in a truly breakout role. Of the book and film, he said, “There is something missing in all kinds of cinema, especially something like Solomon’s story. There are not enough stories like this. It’s from such a unique perspective – it’s vital. It’s a book that should be required reading.”
Co-star Alfre Woodard elaborated on the importance of the story by saying, “The film is as important as finding out who you are related to. Americans get very uncomfortable talking about slavery. It’s like we are trying to deny the very basis of who we are. Along with the horrible aspects of slavery are the incredible aspects in spite all of that. We are never going to be healthy until you embrace all of that.”
Surrounding Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave features an amazing and star-studded ensemble cast, including those mentioned above in addition to Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, and Brad Pitt. But not all the film’s stars are household names.
Making her feature film debut in 12 Years a Slave is Lupita Nyong’o, a beautiful young actress that gives a truly powerhouse performance as Patsey, a slave girl who catches both the fancy and ire of her owner. She, like many of others, spoke of the important connection between the story and New Orleans. “You come here and feel the presence of history. It was so important for us to come here where the story took place and be able to dance with ghosts as we kind of revived these people’s lives and stories. It changes what you think about and helped me get into character.”
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Spike Lee’s Oldboy recently in the city, reiterated the importance of shooting in New Orleans and its history. “New Orleans is kind of the ideal place to shoot films that have a history because the city itself is so historical. There is something here that is human – and it’s not just the food. There is a depth to the city which is fantastic.”
Local actor/baker Dwight Henry, who burst onto the scene in last year’s beloved and locally shot film Beasts of the Southern Wild, also has bit part in the film (as done his Beasts co-star Quvenzhané Wallis). He said, “I’m blessed to be a part of two such great films and working with two wonderful directors. My whole life has changed since Beasts. I went from doing a wonderful low-budget indie film to working on a big budget with a superstar cast. It’s just been wonderful to be a part of these two experiences.”
Director Steve McQueen remarked on 12 Years a Slave being “a bigger production” than his previous films (Hunger, Shame). “It’s epic but the intimacy was still there,” he said, attributing to not only working with some of the same people again, but also the sense of family created on-set. “That helps build a creative environment. We were all comfortable with one another.”
Later, in the post-screening Q&A, McQueen revealed his intense feelings about slavery and why he wanted to do this movie. “Someone asked me the other day how I first learned about slavery. I was taken aback by the question. I didn’t know how to answer it. How does one learn things like that? No one remembers when you first learned your name. But as I got older and became more aware of slavery, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Years later, when I got the opportunity to do this film I decided I didn’t want to be ashamed. I want to own it.”
McQueen and the entire cast raved multiple times about New Orleans and the experience they had while filming here earlier this year. New Orleans was crucial for them – not only because of the people, food, music, and culture, but also for its importance to the film and the story itself. McQueen closed the night to thunderous applause by saying “The film should have “Made in New Orleans’ stamped on it because it was in so many ways.”
As for the film itself, it is certainly deserving of all the praise being heaped upon it so far. 12 Years a Slave is a terrific film – at times, necessarily brutal to watch, but powerful and unflinching in its presentation. It is full amazingly powerful and affecting performances. Coming from a very artistic background, director Steve McQueen has eye for finding beauty in even the most disturbing of places. My full review will be posted closer to when a New Orleans release date is announced.
After the film, and in true New Orleans fashion, the screening ended with music and a Second Line led by the actors all the way down Poydras and onto St. Charles for the After Party at Gallier Hall.
Tickets are on sale now for the New Orleans Film Festival on the New Orleans Film Society’s website.
Read more about this year’s New Orleans Film Festival and all it has to offer in these previous articles:
- 25 films and more to check out at the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival
- New Orleans Film Festival Announces 2013 In-Competition Slate of Films
- New Orleans Film Festival adds a few big name films to 2013 lineup
- OUTakes: New Orleans Film Festival to continue LGBT sidebar again this year
- NOFF adds "Spotlight: AFRICA” film program to festival schedule
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