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By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Not long after Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last August, a friend cautioned the British director that his movie was “more important than you.”

It turned out to be far truer than anyone, including McQueen, might have guessed.

Nearly half a year after McQueen’s searing retelling of the 1841 enslavement of Solomon Northup was first shown to moviegoers, 12 Years a Slave remains the year’s hot-button movie, with McQueen the thoughtful and sometimes stubborn voice at the center of the conversation.

“I feel I have to be the spokesman for the movie, and I feel I have to put myself out there,” McQueen said. “Yes, I have to sacrifice a bit of my family, too. And they understand that.”

No matter how long and enthusiastically people talk about Gravity or American Hustle, the context of the discussion rarely transcends Alfonso Cuaron and David O. Russell’s storytelling artistry. But like fellow best picture nominees Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, McQueen’s film, based on a real life and real issues, focuses on a subject with teeth and staying power. Notwithstanding its period setting, the subject underlying 12 Years a Slave sparks soul-searching about race, complicity and reconciliation.

McQueen’s passion for the topic not only fueled his desire to make the independently financed film but also has sustained him through the seemingly endless awards season, which now stretches from Labor Day to March 2, when the Oscars are finally handed out. What might be a burden to some, in other words, has become for McQueen an opportunity to participate in thoughtful salons around the globe.

Since its initial showing, the 44-year-old filmmaker has crisscrossed the planet to support and discuss his film, a powerful and often difficult-to-watch account of how Northup was drugged, kidnapped and sold and bartered to a series of slave owners, culminating in an overseer so inhumane his name — Epps — is still to this day Southern shorthand for ruthless behavior.

McQueen’s efforts have yielded not only surprisingly strong box office returns of more than $110 million globally but also nine Oscar nominations, including one for director.

All of that comes at a price: It’s cost McQueen the chance to develop another movie and, among the missed family milestones, being with his daughter in Amsterdam on her 15th birthday.

But as the British director said with no evident weariness or regret, “It’s been extraordinarily rewarding.”

One of the unfortunate paradoxes of the Academy Awards season is that it effectively takes the year’s most celebrated filmmakers and, owing to the promotional necessities of awards campaigning, sticks them on the sidelines for half a year as they talk up their movies. Some writers and directors try to work in off hours, only to find their creative energy has been swallowed in the maw of festival premieres and awards dinners.

“It’s kind of all-consuming, to be honest,” said McQueen, who in the last six years directed the features Shame and Hunger, in addition to numerous videos and short films. “You can’t really focus.”

For McQueen, the potential pain of not being able to return to work has been more than offset by the exchanges around his film. A woman from Kenya recounted at a screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles how she had been sold into slavery in Abu Dhabi, and at a premiere in New Orleans the director candidly shared his own feelings of recognizing as a young child the particular shame of slavery for people who are black.

“It’s just so stimulating,” McQueen said in an interview conducted for KCRW’s The Business. “So it never gets particularly tiring. Because you are talking about something which is as relevant today as yesterday.”

The neck-and-neck nature of this year’s best picture race — 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle all are considered potential victors for the top Oscar — has meant that the people behind the three films have missed few opportunities to tout their work.

Because Fox Searchlight, the distributor of 12 Years a Slave, can’t match the big-studio advertising blitzes behind Warner Bros.’ Gravity and Sony’s American Hustle, much of its marketing has hinged on personal appearances by McQueen and his actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” McQueen said. But the publicity generated by 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar nominations, which trail only Gravity for the most this year, has helped bring people into theaters, a difficult task given how graphic the film is.

“This helps us tremendously in getting people to see the movie, in getting people to talk about the movie,” McQueen said. “But we’ve been very lucky that we’ve come this far. It is gratifying when you don’t have the funds that other people have.”

McQueen, who recently became a patron of the long-standing human rights organization Anti-Slavery International, is particularly pleased that the memoir upon which he and screenwriter John Ridley based 12 Years a Slave has been a bestseller for months.

He believes that the film’s success will pave the way for other, seemingly risky productions. (McQueen’s film, like the best picture nominees HerAmerican Hustle, Dallas Buyers ClubThe Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena, was financed outside the studio system.)

“I so hope that the studios understand that people want to see challenging films — films that are not sort of blockbusters,” McQueen said. “I wish that they could understand that they can actually make money. And that will be so healthy. Come on, guys, it makes sense.”

While McQueen would obviously like to see 12 Years a Slave walk away with a lot of hardware at the Oscar ceremony, for now he’s grateful that the film has prompted talk about slavery and race.

“It can change people’s lives, change people’s perspectives. Art — movies — can actually do that. Crazy, but true,” McQueen said. “It’s been actually extraordinarily rewarding talking to people. Having these kinds of passionate debates about where we are now, where we want to be in the future, and who and what we are as a society.”

At McQueen’s urging, Fox Searchlight will soon announce a partnership with Penguin Books and the National School Boards Assn. to send DVDs of 12 Years a Slave and copies of Northup’s memoir to every public high school library — more than 30,000 campuses — in the United States. The movie and book will be available at the start of the next school year.

Even if McQueen shows no outward signs of exhaustion, it’s clear the nearly half-year grind has taken a toll.

“There’s been a lot going on,” McQueen said. “I feel I just need to take a break and come back, hopefully, with something that can make me have the passion I had when I was making 12 Years a Slave.

Photo: Cornerhouse Manchester via Flickr


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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