The life of Solomon Northup—the free, black, middle-class, violin-playing New Yorker who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841—lives on in his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, one of the most vivid accounts of human bondage in American history. He is passed from one plantation to the next as property. He is whipped after underperforming in the cotton fields. And he is forced to lash the plantation owner’s slave-mistress nearly to death under the psychotic gaze of Master Epps. But with the film-adaptation by director Steve McQueen, Northrup’s legacy has inherited a new memorial vessel: Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film’s Nigerian-English breakout star (seen previously on the cover of FADER’s 2006 film issue, and in smaller roles in Amistad and Children of Men). Even when it’s painful, it’s impossible not to watch the way Ejiofor’s Northup tells the story with his eyes: moist, heavy-lidded, and focused on survival. It’s the gaze of a man whose mind is drifting away from the hell he’s been banished to, toward somewhere more pleasant. It’s the perspective of someone who knows he should not be in the place where he is, and that the system of dehumanization, perpetuated with an indignant logic everywhere he looks, should never have existed in the first place.
McQueen’s visually stunning treatment of a historic moment is generating Oscar buzz, and will surely propel Ejiofor to more leading roles. The London-based actor spoke with The FADER about his process, the legacy of slavery in today’s society and happy endings.
What kind of man was Solomon Northup? 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.
Are those insights that you gathered through reading his book, or was there other research that informed how you computed his character? 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.
How did the book inform the film? 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.
In many scenes, Solomon is placed in some kind of horrible situation. He’s left to hang from a tree for a full day within inches of dying. He’s forced to beat a slave woman nearly to death. But your eyes look like they’re accessing some other place, somewhere better. Did you feel that internal life of Solomon when you were playing his part? 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.
What can the film tell today’s audience about slavery that’s new? 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.
You can almost look at the film as an allegory for a middle class black family that’s separated and destroyed by society. That happens to Solomon’s family through kidnapping and being reinserted into slavery, but the contemporary version might be the prison system or other systems of poverty and repression. Did you project any of those contemporary politics into the making of film? 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.
How did making this film compare to the other movie you made about slavery—Steven Spielberg’s Amistad? 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 is known for taking many risks, with films like Shame and Hunger, which don’t necessarily have mass appeal. This film doesn’t necessarily feel like a typical Hollywood film either. 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.
Steven McQueen, who is British, once said, “I could never make American movies—they like happy endings.” At the end we see the family reunited, but then we also find out in the text that appears on screen that Solomon Northup never really got justice. Do you consider this film to have a “happy 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.