TIFF: Brad Pitt Says “12 Years a Slave” Tells a Story America Needs to Hear

September 8, 2013 Updated: September 26, 2014

TORONTO—It’s a story rarely told and something every American needs to pay attention to, says producer Brad Pitt, referring to “12 Years a Slave,” which premiered at the Toronto international film Festival on Sept. 6.

Pitt has an important cameo in the film.

“Steve McQueen asked the question when we first started talking about doing something here: ‘Why’s there not more films about American slavery—it’s such a big part of your history,’ and I couldn’t answer him. Exactly. Why? That is the big question, why isn’t there. It took a Brit to ask that question.”

But the tale “12 Years a Slave” tells isn’t the typical good slave vs. evil slavemaster story that has characterized other depictions, and director Steve McQueen say’s it’s a tale that goes beyond race.

“I hope it goes beyond race. Yes, race is involved there but it is not entirely about that,” said McQueen.

“This film for me is about love. And it’s one of those things that there is a little bit of pain in love sometimes but you know you have to get through it,” he said.

“12 Years” tells the real-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and sold to a plantation owner. Unlike most who suffered this fate, Northup’s tale has a happy ending.

McQueen tells a story that transcends race and simple narratives, invoking a tale as complex as the era in which it took place—a time when commonplace degradations were taken as perfectly normal.

McQueen wants that looked at and thought about. 

“There’s a lot of shame about slavery in America and in the West Indies,” he notes. And much like rape, a sad and devastating reality for many slaves, even the victims can feel ashamed. 

McQueen says the most powerful line in the movie is where the protagonist asks for forgiveness from his wife for being away for so long. She tells him there is nothing to forgive. 

“It wasn’t your fault; this is what happened to you. That was very key,” says McQueen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, said the story stands out because it is a historical tale told from a primary source—Northup’s own diary.

“It’s a gift from the past to open a discussion, not about race particularly but about human dignity and our freedoms,” he said.

‘It shakes me’

McQueen learned about Northup through his wife, who introduced him to the diary. He said it had a profound effect on him and he compared it to the diary of Anne Frank.

Pitt described the movie as deeply stirring. As producer he worked behind-the-scenes to pull the pieces together and secure financing for the film.

Pitt said McQueen is a master director and the acting in “12 Years” is superb.

“As a fan of actors, they are the best performances I have ever seen,” he said.

Pitt said the film was a transformative experience, and that it is a rare film that brings all the elements together—a great idea, storytelling, and performances.

“It shakes me, it really shakes me,” he said.

Lupita Nyong’o plays one of those who suffered most under slavery—the young women often raped—who knows her children may suffer the same fate as herself.

“Being the bearers of the next generation of slaves must not have been an easy thing to go through,” said Nyong’o. But it wasn’t only women who experienced violence, she said.

“The thing about slavery is it was violent all around. Every single slave experienced that kind of violence unless you had the luck of being with a benevolent master.”

McQueen said he made the movie because he wanted to tell a story about slavery that could move people in the way that only cinema can. 

“It’s one thing to read about slavery. … When you see it within a narrative, it’s different.”

For Pitt, he said he learned not only about slavery in the past but also that presently there are more slaves in the world than any previous time in history.

“That is an incalculable stat,” he said.

Pitt commended those battling against human trafficking.

“This film reminds us about our responsibility to each other. It’s something we need to pay more attention to and understand,” he said.

“12 Years a Slave” opens in theatres across North America in October.