British Artists Shift American 'Conversation On Race'

NPR icon by Bilal Qureshi
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Following the premiere of the new film 12 Years A Slave at the Toronto International Film Festival, reporter Johanna Schneller of The Globe and Mail asked British director Steve McQueen, "Can we talk about race in North America? Are we all too careful, are we all too fearful?" McQueen bristled in response: "I don't know what kind of conversation you're talking about."

12 Years A Slave is black British filmmaker Steve McQueen's upcoming new portrait of American slavery that opens on Oct. 18. It follows the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, NY who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Critics at Toronto immediately hailed the film as a landmark achievement – "necessary and essential," the Schindler's List of slavery films. The film is brutal, unflinching and unsentimental in its portrait of a theme that remains deeply charged for an American audience. But McQueen, who has previously spoken out about Hollywood's deficit of black filmmakers, said his film is about more than America's history with race. "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 put ourselves into boxes or put sort of frames around things. But actually most of the time things break out of those frames," he said.

McQueen's 12 Years A Slave was one of several international productions with black British actors front and center to premiere at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Idris Elba came to the festival with co-star Naomie Harris to premiere Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who also appears in 12 Years A Slave accompanied actress Thandie Newton for the premiere of their film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

But instead of seeing these films as a banner of new black filmmaking, Thandie Newton said despite their predominantly black casts that "absolutely none of these movies are about race."

Gary Younge covers America for the British newspaper, The Guardian, and he says the unwillingness of black Britons to have themselves and their work categorized by race is a reflection of a fundamentally different historical experience. "There is a demand sometimes when black Britons come to the U.S. to speak a different language of race, a language that they were not raised with, that they are not necessarily fluent in — and that they may not also respect and that by and large, people will resist and say well, I don't want to use those words and I don't want to talk in that way."

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 carries with it an immigrant sensibility. It's a community with roots and intact links to Britain's former colonies. Younge says: "We are fewer in number. We have been in Britain less long. Our civil rights movement took place abroad, in India, Jamaica, Nigeria and elsewhere. I grew up with a map of Barbados on the wall, with a flag of Barbados on the door and I was 17 before I would admit that I was British."

Chiwetel Ejiofor grew up shuttling between Nigeria and London. Thandie Newton says her mother "literally grew up Zimbabwe." But as filmmakers with international aspirations, America remains the promised land. Gary Younge says, that "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." And even though coming to America can mean being classified as 'black actors,' it can also allow for a kind of freedom and critical distance when addressing uncomfortable truths.

Early in her Hollywood career, Thandie Newton played Sally Hemings in the film Jefferson in Paris, and then took the role of the daughter of a slave in the big-screen adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Newton says: "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....I saw it from a completely sort of fresh perspective."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the "genius grant"), was at Toronto for the premiere of the screen adaptation of her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Adichie's latest novel, Americanah, explores a Nigerian woman's journey to understanding the American contours of race. Adichie says if there's one thing she's learned crisscrossing between Africa, London and America, it's that to address these issues, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable:

"People are so uncertain about how to deal with it because on the one hand it's a very good thing 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?"

When I asked director Steve McQueen if he felt any responsibility to engage in the American conversations that will inevitably emerge from 12 Years a Slave he said, "I don't have to. I'm a filmmaker. My responsibility is to the film and that's it."

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