12 Years A Slave is a British-American drama that adapted the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. Northup, a freed black man was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup’s slave narrative differs from others because he was a middle-class black man who lived in Upstate New York. Chiwetel Ejiofor who uncovered who Solomon Northup was in his role in 12 Years A Slave spoke with Fader Magazine on how he conceptualized Northup’s character, if blacks have progressed since slavery and if we can find the silver lining in given freedom.
Solomon Northup As A Man
He had this depth of spirit and passion, a kind of instinct for life, an absence of hatred. He was able to get rid of anything that wasn’t useful to him, and to only keep things that were gonna keep him alive and keep his mind intact. Hatred was just not gonna be useful. It would only eat him; he didn’t have any place for it.
He Prepared For This Role
It was stuff that I got from the screenplay, and stuff that I got from the book. But there were some things that you discover as you move through the process. You’re making all these decisions about how you’re gonna respond to people, how you’re going to interact, and how those things make you feel. And things come up—like this lack of hatred—which you don’t even necessarily acknowledge fully at the time. You’re inside the experience. You’re playing Solomon as you feel him, and it’s maybe only after that you really reflect on all the different aspects of the character.
On Northup’s memoir 12 Years A Slave
I consider Solomon Northrop’s book a gift to the modern world. It’s expressing something in the past but it’s also full of elements we can relate to in our time. It allows us to understand the past in a slightly different way, teasing us into the future in a different way. The experience I had reading the book was the experience that I wanted people to have whilst watching the film—you start off watching the film or reading the book and you’re quite objective—you’re just looking at it—and then at a certain point it becomes quite immersive and you are feeling it as well. And I thought that with the book. So that’s the quality that you have to bring to the film.
Reenacting Northup’s life events
The process is multi-layered. Obviously, when you’re playing Solomon, you’re always aware that he is very alive to the sense that he shouldn’t be in that place. That’s the foundation of playing a character like that. Everything he witnesses is a reflection of that primary fact: that he knows a completely different life to this life. He becomes a conduit for the audience, who probably are experiencing what he’s experiencing in a similar way, whereas every other person in that environment is either accustomed to it or believes that it’s justified. So he’s closer to us, with a similar experience to the audience than anybody else in the film.
Slave Narratives In 21st Century Flim
I think it gives us a completely three-dimensional picture of slavery, because it comes from really deep inside the slave’s experience. The things that we consider to be amorphous blobs of slavery, like the plantation system, were actually very specific. You had the sugar cane, and the cotton picking, and timber, and all of these created very different plantations. Also, the relationships between people were so specific, like the bizarre friendship that came up between Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Master Ford, and Solomon, who became, kind of, strange friends. They recognized something in each other. The system had them both in a bond: Master Ford for financial reasons; Solomon, obviously, in slavery. So it’s a very complex system, and I think it’s very informative as to how these systems that compromise human dignity can come up through people who are, sort of, understandable. And I think that’s something that any era should really look at: those questions of human dignity and respect and what human beings are capable of.
The effect slavery had on Black people
In a way, it wasn’t my job to try and play it in a contemporary reflection of the story. I was gonna just tell the story—Solomon Northup’s story. I think once you look and reflect on Solomon Northrup and on the system of slavery, I think it has wide implications for society. How could it not? The events of this film were only 150 years ago, or something. It’s so recent. Of course it’s going to have a major impact on the way society is today. These things are going to take a lot longer to deal with. And the ways that they express themselves in society are varied. Some of them express themselves externally, some of them internally—not only the poverty, but there’s also mental health issues and education. There’s a lot of different things we can all find the roots of in that period. There was a devastated community and families and I think there are allegories there, for sure. But that’s not the way that I was approaching the material as an actor. That’s a reflection after.
The difference between Amistad and 12 Years A Slave
It’s a very different kind of project. Amistad began with a slightly more familiar idea of looking at slavery from a slight distance, and looking at those events with a panoramic view, from the president to the slaves themselves to the lawyers that represented them. I think this is different in that it’s from the slave’s point of view, and I don’t think that we’ve seen that before.
Steve McQueen As A Director
To me, there are different kinds of Hollywood movies. I know what you’re talking about, but even without meeting the sort of generalities of the quintessential Hollywood movie, this film is not necessarily un-Hollywood. Certainly in terms of its cast, in its production value, all the people involved and who’s doing music—it’s people who are familiar with Hollywood. What Steve brings is he comes at it from a slight angle—a beautiful angle. He’s so exceptionally detailed. He has a very heightened and achieved sensibility for all the different aspects of filmmaking. To me it doesn’t make it art-house. It still obtains a kind of narrative that is quite recognizable to people.
His Thoughts on 12 years a slave’s ending
I think his return was, obviously, wonderful. It’s an amazing experience to be able to reclaim himself and his family, and so that’s deeply satisfying, and obviously my heart leapt when I first read that in the book. I think that you can be frustrated by the other things that he wasn’t able to achieve—like bringing justice to the people that had done this to him—and also saddened by the fact that we don’t know much more about him and his life. But I certainly feel like it’s an incredibly joyous moment.
Have you seen ’12 Years A Slave’ yet?