There’s little justice in “12 Years a Slave.” And there’s not a hint of “Django Unchained” revenge in it, no scenes where a born-free New Yorker — kidnapped and enslaved — shoots, slices or strangles his tormentors.
The film’s star says that fits the man whose autobiography it was based on — Solomon Northup. Revenge just wasn’t in his makeup.
“There’s something about his humanity, his lack of hatred even as he’s writing about these awful things that happen to him,” says Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays him in the new film. “He was a person with a profound love of life. Not in a skippy, happy way. He just loved life in a deep, reflective way. That shimmers through the entire autobiography. That was something I tried to add to the script in my interpretation of him.”
A searing, unblinking portrayal of one literate, 19th century black man’s experience of a life in bondage, “12 Years a Slave” is already an Oscar favorite with critics falling all over themselves to sing its praises.
“Epic,” says Time magazine. “A great film,” adds Time Out New York. “Believe the Oscar buzz,” raves the Toronto Star.
It took two Brits — the London born son of Nigerian parents (Ejiofor) and a director whose parents were West Indian (Steve McQueen) to make a definitive movie about slavery in America.
“I’m at the heart of the story, as are so many people all over the world,” says McQueen, whose movies (“Hunger” about an IRA prisoner’s hunger strike, and “Shame,” about sexual addiction) do not shy away from the ugly. “My parents are from Granada, where Malcolm X’s mother was born. And my mother was born in Trinidad, where Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘Black Power,” is from.
“Slavery wasn’t just about shipping black slaves to North America. My ancestors were dropped off along the way to America. It was a global trade, with repercussions and former slaves settling all around the world. Part of that diaspora is my story.”
Ejiofor, 36, would seem even further removed from the story they’re telling. A London native, an acclaimed stage actor and a rising film star, with “Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men” and “2012” among his credits, he was nevertheless drawn to the story McQueen felt compelled to tell.
“I think every African person is connected to slavery,” Ejiofor says. “My family comes from the southeast of Nigeria, the Igbo Tribe. I was in Nigeria, shooting another film before making ’12 Years a Slave.’ The last stop I made before heading out was to the slavery museum in Calabar. You see the roll call of people, hundreds of thousands of them, taken out of Calabar. The next day, I took a flight to Louisiana, the same place many of them were sent. It was eerie, in a way. I’ve always felt deeply connected to what happened there, and the lives they led in America.”
Northup was a married, father of two and a Saratoga, New York musician. He was tricked into taking a gig in Washington D.C. and kidnapped in 1841. Working with history meant both director and star would have to go deep into research to make the film. Despite all that’s been written about slavery over the decades, each found himself taken aback by some corner of the institution that isn’t common knowledge.
“We always think of slavery as this amorphous experience,” Ejiofor says. “You don’t think of specifics, little freedoms. The difficulty of obtaining a pen and paper, how a bar of soap can have life or death implications, the distinction between slaves who cut timber and cut sugar cane and those who picked cotton. Those industries could create completely different lives on their respective plantations. The violence of one wouldn’t necessarily be present on the other.”
McQueen, 43, was surprised by “how the boundaries of slavery were sort of constantly moving. For example, Mrs. Shaw (played by Alfre Woodard in the film). She’s married to a white slave owner. She started out a slave, and now she owns slaves. There were many slaves in the South, or former slaves, who owned slaves. They were able, on occasion, to buy back their relatives. The relationships were far murkier than simple black and white. I had no idea of the complexity, the things that were allowed here, not allowed there, the ways the rules bent this way and that.”
And most surprising of all to the director?
“How could I not have heard of this book? NO ONE had heard of it! My wife found it. To me, this is a story to rival and compare to Anne Frank. His story became the story I had to tell.”
Ejiofor sees “12 Years a Slave” as a chance to not merely revisit the horrors of the past, but to mark how the world has changed. In an age when everything from personal liberty to instant communication, the rule of law to freedom of movement is taken for granted, here’s a new appreciation of how hopeless people trapped in slavery could feel and how extraordinary they had to be to survive it.
“Northup’s book is one of those great historical documents that take you deep inside the slave experience,” Ejiofor says. “His voice is crying out from the past. It’s a gift from him to us, in the modern world, to open these discussions of what it was really like.”
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