There are an estimated 100 slave autobiographies from the era before the Civil War, but “12 Years a Slave” is the first to be made into a theatrical film. English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an educated free man, carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of the movie — co-produced by Minneapolis film financier William Pohlad — a few audience members were overwhelmed with emotion at its unflinching depiction of slave-owners’ extreme cruelty and violence, including one graphic, nearly 10-minute-long lashing scene.
Several viewers left the theater. The rest remained, riveted by the film’s examination of race, identity, human dignity and freedom, and gave the film a sustained standing ovation.
Speaking to the press after the screening, English director Steve McQueen, a visual artist turned filmmaker, was unfazed by news of the walkouts.
“Great!” he exclaimed. “Certain things that speak to some people, [others] aren’t going to sit through. But the vast majority that were there gave us a standing ovation, so I just take heart from that.”
The film won the Toronto festival’s top prize, the People’s Choice Award.
Co-starring Brad Pitt (who also co-produced), Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave” opens in theaters Friday, but Twin Cities filmgoers can see it Wednesday as part of a McQueen retrospective at Walker Art Center.
A ‘surreal rabbit hole’
Reading about the horrors of plantation slavery is one thing. It’s a deeper experience to see the system’s brutality in film images. And it’s incomparably profound to act the part.
“The role didn’t just engage me, it captured me totally and completely,” Ejiofor said in an interview. “It’s the most extraordinary part that I’ve attempted, and one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life generally.”
Ejiofor delves deep into his characters. He toured African refugee camps before playing Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba at London’s Young Vic this summer. He studied jiu jitsu to prepare for his role in the 2008 martial-arts drama “Redbelt.” Ejiofor learned to play violin for his role as Northup, but his research went much deeper.
The day before filming began in Louisiana, Ejiofor, whose family is of Nigerian Ibo heritage, visited a slave museum in southeastern Nigeria.
“I looked at a register of the hundreds of thousands of Ibo men and women who were taken out to Louisiana. Right from the jump-off point I was beginning to get deeply immersed in this. And then I was in the same locations in Louisiana the following day.”
While Ejiofor took on the different kinds of physical labor involved in cutting timber, harvesting sugar cane and picking cotton, Louisiana was in the grip of record-breaking temperatures. The first day of shooting he filmed fieldwork scenes in 108-degree heat.
“I was very happy to learn that was a record, because if that was normal I didn’t see how we could shoot the film,” he said. “It was extraordinary, but it put us right into the reality in an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ way. We plunged down a kind of surreal rabbit hole.”
The swamps, woodlands, historic plantations and slave quarters of Louisiana added “so many things to draw on,” he said. “It was a gift to us to be able to shoot in or near the exact places where Solomon’s story occurred. On these plantations, you’re dancing with ghosts. On days when it was difficult, we wanted them to be around us and guide us in a way. You could really relate to his experience.”
The film’s depiction of slavery is nuanced. At one point even the good-hearted Solomon is forced to whip his friend Patsy, “What it shows is how monstrous the system is. It will eat up anything that is positive and corrupt it into a negative. Even his friendship with Patsy is used against him to break his heart. The beating is a transition point for Solomon, who realizes that he must get out or lose his sanity. The film starts as a battle for his freedom, but becomes a battle for his mind.”
Viewers who fixate on the film’s violence are in danger of missing its other important qualities, he said. “This is a story about the human spirit, about the soul. It’s about a man’s love for his family, and the way he’s able to fashion relationships and friendships in this crazy world speaks to his humanity.”
“The acts of violence are necessary to understand Solomon’s psychology and the psychology of those around him. You can’t tell the story without the mayhem. It would be a disservice to the firsthand experience of Solomon Northup. If you removed it you wouldn’t be able to understand that degree of terror, of fear, of trepidation. Every act of violence is exactly as described in the book. There’s nothing added in an effort to be gratuitous.”
Ejiofor, who has a featured role as a translator in Steven Spielberg’s slavery film “Amistad,” said that a key difference between the productions is that “12 Years a Slave” “is a story told from inside the slave experience. That’s the gift of Solomon’s story, that it reaches so deep inside this experience.
“For me the film raises the question of what human respect really means and how we deal with our past while moving forward,” Ejiofor said. “Dividing everything into categories of race and gender and sexuality and religion really does not help anybody that much, yet some people are still determined to try.”