Alfre Woodard’s refining quality, patina for 12 YEARS A SLAVE
The new movie “12 Years A Slave” is based on a true story; not for the weak-kneed or those in denial about particularly unkind annals of American life. Yet this story is one of unflinching resolve, preservation of human dignity and the fight for justice, despite the cost or sacrifice.
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, and editor served as an advisor to the project, directed by Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) for FOX Searchlight Pictures.
Gates opined, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s astonishingly brilliant cinematic conjuring of an African American’s bestselling, harrowing memoir exactly 160 years after it was published to great fanfare, just eight years
before the start of the Civil War. As a literary critic and cultural historian who has spent much of my career searching out African Americans’ lost, forgotten, and otherwise unheralded tales—especially the narratives of fugitive slaves–I was proud to have served as a consultant on McQueen’s film and excited to see the fruits of his labors.
As I sat riveted during Steve’s film, I also found myself sitting with 12 Years a Slave’s original author and protagonist, Mr. Solomon Northup (1807—unknown), during those first hours, days and nights in April 1841, when, in “the dungeon” of Williams’ Slave Pen off Seventh Street in Washington, D.C., he reckoned with the betrayal that had lured him out of a lifetime of freedom in upstate New York into a nightmare of enslavement in the deep and deeper South. “[W]hen consciousness returned I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains,” Northup wrote, and “nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my own voice startled me.”
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) centers this epic intersection: a crossroads of disparate rallying cries where the best of the human spirit is beckoned to rise up and set him free from an unintended traverse through 12 years of forced slavery, tricked into captivity by social deviants of the worst order, that belie psychological embrace.
The rarely told story of the freed slave has been heretofore shorn by some storytellers opting for the traditional view of reprehensible human commerce that fueled the growing American economies through much of the1800s.
Ah, but, this 12-year window into Northup’s imperil past emancipates by virtue of illuminating his relentless pursuit. A New York resident, Northup, and those like him represent the amazing, courageous erstwhile aggregate, oft times revisited annually during February.
Alfre Woodard’s Mistress Shaw in 12 YEARS is among another rarely told archetype—the enslaved African women taken by force into the bed chambers of their owners to become kept mistresses—invariably extend 12 YEARS’ conjecture of quasi-freedom albeit a hierarchal status of that period.
During this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I sat with Woodard: the Oscar nominated, Emmy-award winning, mother, wife and Oklahoma native who this month celebrates 30 years of marriage to producer/writer Roderick Spencer.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Inside this story of pain, injustice and inevitable triumph, you bring a measure of elegance to your portrayal of Mistress Shaw. Walk me through the journey to develop the character’s import, as well, the inner recesses of a magnificent and telling performance.
Alfre Woodard: Well, Steve (McQueen) has painted this landscape. He takes us from facts, from history that allowed us a familiarity but he
also made it a reality, you actually step into it. It helps that we get to follow a free man because we’re all free. It’s as if we go down the rabbit hole with him and when you get there Steve has created a world so complex that for the first time, I could imagine my people there, not just some person in bondage. I could imagine my big momma’s grandmother there because this (story of slavery) was populated with many different kinds of people–not just black and white or even gray– it was fully colored with people of all shades in this dollar economy, the slave economy.
It was great to have Mistress Shaw represented because that was a reality too. Though brief it plays a pivotal part in forming a major scene. We had a few minutes to establish a world that we believe existed before we got there. For me, it was grounding to find Mistress Shaw’s reality. I’m sure she was a favored concubine and a woman that was not going to bear the lash; some (slaves) would go and run and drown themselves. But as we do with every situation we’re in, some of us figure out how to survive and not just survive, but how to live; how to get what we need. Being a mistress was the decision she made.
I love the facts of this character. She’s lonely. Sitting in her taffetas and all, she’s lonely because she can’t function with the others, none of the slaves and all those women (in the community) are going to socialize with her, because in their minds, ‘well, she thinks she is too high and mighty to be socializing on a field.’
She’s got people serving her; it’s the circle of life. I serve (as a mistress), so yes, come and hand me a cup of tea. I wanted to give her refinement that she’s seen from being in the house but tweak it with aspects that show she’s still raw, so I get her dialect off a little bit. She says, ‘Master Shaw’s pec-u-ularities.’ Finding ways to show she was still rough around the edges though she’s completely grounded.
Mistress Shaw could have chosen somebody else to mentor. She chose Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o who gives an extraordinary portrayal of a brutally misused field mistress) because in Patsy, we see nobility. Patsy is the manliest person on that plantation; she can pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. Mistress Shaw sees in Patsy a pathway for her to get through this (horrific suffering) to live a fine life. In order to do so, she must let go of whatever she is holding on to– because you don’t need to be stuck in the field, you don’t need to be beaten. Some of us are to the manner born and that manner means not to be on the very bottom.
Talk2SV: Each time we speak I am delighted at the way you turn phrases. You’re married to a writer; in my mind I imagine the conversations the two of you must have. What did you discuss about this role?
Woodard: I don’t think we discussed it prior to the screening of the movie here in Toronto.
Woodard: My husband is very emotional. His heart is easily touched. Before the movie began, I said to him, ‘put your hands over your mouth, do not sob out loud.’ We let a friend sit between us because I knew he (husband) would be grabbing my leg the whole time. Afterwards, he said some things that meant so much to me. I think he is the smartest person I know and the most tasteful and discerning. It’s been 30 official years this October, we’ve been together 33 years. It was lust at first sight, he’s gorgeous but at the same we’re spiritual beings, that’s who we actually are. Initially, it was really spirit that kicked in, finding that person with whom you have common language.
Talk2SV: I take it his comments about your performance were private…?
Woodard: Well, let me think about it for a minute. What he said to me then hasn’t diminished; it’s only grown deeper, artistically. That ‘connection’ we made at the beginning, which I think some, if not most people say about their relationships. In our case, we’ve got too much history, too much family and all of that together. To walk a walk with another artist and have them say what he said to me that night… we didn’t really talk about her (Mistress Shaw) beforehand as we normally do.
I tried not to think of her until I got to Steve because I knew he’s a real director, he’s a story teller. Most people direct traffic, they do it well, but they direct traffic.
Talk2SV: I spent a few minutes with him (Steve McQueen) and sensed the essence you describe. Psychologically, when we contemplate who we become on this journey of life, your body expressions speak vividly. It seems your essence is one of peace and placement as a tenured actor, one that can usher younger cohorts along the way.
Woodard: I have a daughter who is 22.
Talk2SV: She’s 22, where has the time gone?
Woodard: Yeah, my Mavis is 22, my Duncan is 19; there is something about being a mom. Even if you’re not, there is a thing about nurturing the people under you who may only be 5, 10, 15 years younger. Sometimes I think people surmise that if they are nurturing, their career is done. Then some still fight. I’m not just talking about having children or raising children, some mothers are competing with their children all the way through because they may still be exploring options for themselves. I think you continue growing when you make sure the person behind you is; when that younger person knows that somebody has their hand out for them. It costs you nothing but letting go of your fearful ego.
Honestly, taking on mothering the way I do with my Mavis and Duncan, I’m going to listen and
see who they are. I’m going to keep trying to hear who they are because anything I can think of to help them then I’ll do that rather than saying, ‘oh, this is what you should do. This is what’s right, this is what’s wrong.’ I’d rather help them keep stroking, keep kicking, those kinds of things. I’m really excited raising children: excited about their talents, their different aspects, rather than resentful, rather than fearful of their questions or the steps they take. When I started to raise my children it was the only path I could take. Not because I was so inspired to do that, but if I’m being totally honest, I said to each of them when I held them, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth as far as I know it. I’ll always tell you, that’s what I know and, I don’t know it all.’
When I look at the younger actors, they are grown women and they are getting to do things that I never got to do. They will do great things that I won’t have had the chance to do. But I want them to have the encouragement and the license to be absolutely as brilliant as they are, starting out; to unfold as brilliantly as possible. I want that for them because we should always nurture the young.
Talk2SV: Your explanation reminds me of the book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America and In Search of Sisterhood, from Paula Giddings, African-American historian and professor (Smith College). Your character, Mistress Shaw, could have entered life’s journey at a later time and been someone else altogether with no less agency and facility however it’s when we enter this journey in the roles we are assigned, our actions determine our defining moments. How would you describe your defining moments?
Woodard: I’m a bridge between social statuses; I’m a bridge between generations. I can see and feel everybody’s point of view; I’m a witness. I realize that’s what my job is. That’s what my walk is this time around, as a witness. As a person, I can be profane, really cheeky and bawdy; I’m not at all serious because I can see the whole picture (of life). It’s all pomp. I like the taste, the flavor; I love sensuality of my belief that I am entirely spiritual; I’m entirely spirit, truly spirit. I don’t believe in this body so I guess it’s all of that.
Talk2SV: Being the bridge that you are, allowing Steve McQueen to cross over that America we once knew (in 12 YEARS A SLAVE) into the one we have now, how do you feel your relationship with him will be, going forward?
Woodard: Two things: I want to work with Steve more, he is a fiery cauldron, and I just want to be an artist’s true friend; another artist to him, a true friend that will help him because his mind does not stop. He’s a black man in this world who is a visionary artist. He’s one of those filmmakers that will join the pantheon of great directors. People won’t be able to understand his spoken language sometimes, him Steve personally, because he’s way ahead, thinking so many things at once. I want to be near him so that he’ll feel like somebody speaks his language. We can be profane together, kick up our heels and swear, laugh and not take it seriously.
It’s a lonely place to be – a true artist – it’s lonely. You have to be alone because everybody else would be an artist.