You may never be the same after seeing the new movie, 12 Years A Slave, based on a true story about a free black man, Solomon Northup, tricked into slavery in the 1800’s.
Yes, the story is overwhelming but the bravery and tenacity displayed by Northup delivered via an amazing portrayal by Chiwetel Ejiofor ushered in the pride of heritage to be born black, capable, accomplished and proud in America. I left the film feeling more determined and focused, refusing to live beneath the privilege that my ancestors fought and died for.
Noted professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, and editor served as consultant to this film, directed by Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) for FOX Searchlight Pictures.
Gates opined, “Not only was Northup suddenly a stranger to himself, in an even stranger place, but with his money and the papers proving his status as a free black man stolen and a beating awaiting every insistence on the truth of who he really was—a husband, a father, a free man—Northup was forced into a horrifying new role, that of the paradoxical “Free Slave,” under the false name “Platt Hamilton,” a supposed “runaway” from Georgia.
“I had not then learned the measure of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain,” Northup revealed about his fateful first hours as a slave, but in Louisiana he did learn as the property of three different owners: one paternal (William Prince Ford); one insecure (John Tibaut, whom Northup nearly choked to death after being attacked by him); and one former slave driver and overseer, Edwin Epps, brutally efficient with the lash whenever Northup was too late, inefficient, unwilling to whip Epps’s other slaves himself, or high on his own talents as a violinist—Northup’s “ruling passion” ever since his childhood as the son of a free woman, Susanna, and an ex-slave farmer, Mintus, who, as a property owner in Fort Edward, New York, had earned the right vote.
During this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, I sat with the 36-year-old British born Chiwetel Ejiofor at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. His film credits are nothing short of praiseworthy, among them: Endgame, Redbelt, American Gangster, Inside Man, Kinky Boots, Talk To Me, Amistad, Children of Men, Dirty Pretty Things, Starz Network’s Dancing on the Edge
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Congratulations on what is one of your masterful performances. This is an all-encompassing role; were you able to switch gears easily and get back into a normal routine?
Chiwetel: It took me some time. I remember finishing the film and trying to come back to myself because we did go deep down the rabbit hole, we had to, and that was the nature of doing this film. Then it was sort of strange to adjust back to the real world, to sit in Starbuck’s or whatever and read the paper, having come out of an experience like that. I could only equate it to people who go out into extreme situations for a while then come back to normal life and have to readjust.
It took me a couple of months before I started to feel like I could go out and really see people without them thinking that I was completely crazy. I actually did that in New York. I managed to spend a couple of months in New York, I used to live there about eight years ago and still have friends so if I needed to go and see anybody to socialize a little bit I could do that. I could also take a lot of time to myself. I did feel that if I had gone straight back to London on the last day of shooting or straight back to L.A., it would have just been too surreal a jump.
But it’s a part, a character in a story that I think is going to live with me forever– a character that has become part of your life and the way you think about the world. What Solomon experienced is an experience that has both breadth and depth; there seems to be a number of different ways you can think about it and it still leads you into these other extraordinary avenues of what that experience must have been.
Talk2SV: I’ve thought long and possibly hard about this assertion, given British-born actors such as you, Idris Elba (BBC’s Luther), David Oyelowo (The Butler) and others who did not have the same trajectory as blacks born in America with predecessors who track back to slavery, as we know it. When you play these kinds of roles that are unique to the American black experience, does your background inform what you do, does it make your portrayal a bit easier to transport?
Chiwetel: I don’t know, I mean, it’s a complex thing. My suspicion is that in a project like this or any other, there are always multiple avenues to explore. When I started to study slavery, I studied it in the international context; the fact that the slaves weren’t from America meant that by definition, it had an international aspect. So I always studied it in that way but also the West Indies and South America… but also the impact in Africa. My family is Igbo (Ibo) from Nigeria.
Hundreds of thousands of Ibo were taken to the south in America and South America and the West Indies. So I always felt legitimate within the telling of the story because in terms of Africa, in terms of the West Indies, the American connection with Britain and America, I felt connected to that experience. I felt it was part of my experience and my people, so that was one thing but, that’s not to say that I wasn’t aware of the specific nature of telling the story about Louisiana, about the American south, about plantations in America. I was aware of that and in a sense it is something that encourages me; encouraged me to make sure that I engaged fully with this story.
I felt the responsibility of being slightly separate from that direct lineage and that meant that I really needed to give a 100% or why else would I do it. But I felt that I needed to make sure I paid homage, absolutely, and to the best of my ability was able to tell the story historically, correctly.
Talk2SV: I am struck by the opportunities that have come your way to portray numerous luminaries: Northup, Patrice Lumumba (Prime Minister of The Republic of The Congo in the 1960s) on stage in London for which you were lauded. I understand you are to portray Fela Kuti (Nigerian human rights activist, musician and composer) as well…..
Chiwetel: As for Fela, possibly, if we can make the film. It’s a possibility, we’ll see.
Talk2SV: As an actor, did you set out to find these marvelous bio pics…was this your career goal?
Chiwetel: No, I didn’t aim for anything specific. I think you gravitate in a weird way toward what you feel you can affect, if you know what I mean. I always felt that the representation of black men was somehow not accurate to the way that I was raised and the way that I saw black men when I was growing up in my father, my grandfather and the kind of men they were. Even when they were young men was very different to the kind of
men that I had seen in cinema or that I was seeing in cinema or in theatre. When I was growing up– and I think I always felt that way– there was something that could be done about that; actually, there were extraordinary role models and people that were out there. Not that this is the basis of my life, but, definitely when I read something like 12 Years a Slave, when I read something about the life of Patrice Lumumba and his achievements, his attempts–who was my age when he was president of the Congo– when I read those stories I do tend to think it does lift me a little
bit. I do get excited about representing black men in a way that I feel is fairer, in a way that I think is actually positive.
Talk2SV: A few of the opening scenes in this film helped undergird my emotions for the tumultuous narrative that is the story of Solomon Northup, particularly, the bedroom between Solomon and his wife, lying in bed, staring in each other’s eyes. The unspoken love language between them; the sweetness and fun-loving moments they shared with the children. Those images helped me [as the viewer] steady myself for Solomon’s 12 years of ungodly travail, knowing he was committed to working his way back to his family’s love.
Chiwetel: Well, those scenes you are talking about were sort of a beautiful combination of Steve’s ability to direct something in detail but also a trust in his actors. He actually left the room when we were doing that bedroom scene. He said, ‘I’m going to pop out for five minutes and I want you to just figure out what you’re going to do. Obviously you’re going to have to communicate a lot in this sequence; then I’m going to come back and we’re going to shoot it.’ That sort of tells you quite a lot about Steven in the way that he is able to embrace people’s creativity, embrace their abilities and to trust that.
Talk2SV: So that scene, was in part, yours?
Chiwetel: Yeah, I mean, obviously it’s not improvised, but, we were just sort of allowed to figure out what we were going to do and to tell our story in that way. When he came back into the room, Steve took a look at it, made a couple of tweaks and we shot the scene.
Talk2SV: I could spend an eternity talking to you; I’m simply fascinated by your facility, your agency and what you’ve been able to do in 36 years. I can only imagine when you turn 50 what the retrospective will be.
Chiwetel: I don’t know. My hope is that this is the beginning of my working experience, there is so much else to do, to figure out and to say. We’re just sort of starting that journey so I’m excited about that. I’m deeply excited about this film and I’m deeply proud of it.
Talk2SV: 12 years is operative in this film; what were you doing 12 years ago?
Chiwetel: Twelve years ago, what was I doing…?
Talk2SV: You were 24…
Chiwetel: I remember my 24th birthday because I was on stage with Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln; we were doing a play called Blue Orange in
the West End…
Talk2SV: I’m very familiar with that play; it was performed here last year at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre….
Chiwetel: it’s a great play from Joe Penhall. It was a terrific company of people to work with and it was the first time it’s ever been done, back then, twelve years ago. We opened it; that was an extraordinary time. I’ve been thrilled to see that play travel around the world.
Talk2SV: How special is that. What do you make of all of the Oscar chatter about 12 Years A Slave?
Chiwetel: I don’t know. I think we’ll just see what happens. It’s extraordinary that this is happening that people are talking in this way about the film. I love and I’m deeply proud of the film; I’m thrilled that people have received it in the way that they have and that’s all that I can really hope for, as an actor, that’s all that you can really hope for so I’m excited to open the film and see what happens.
Talk2SV: Extraordinary… just extraordinary.
Chiwetel: Thank you.