When Chiwetel Ejiofor was offered the role of a lifetime, the lead in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” he hesitated. Solomon Northup is not an easy character: He was a black man born free in New York state in 1808 who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Ejiofor didn’t know if he was the right man to tell such a powerful story. But the potential of playing Northup and renewing the subject of slavery in American cinema was too great to pass up. And McQueen’s vision was worth the risk, he figured.
What’s emerged is one of the most talked-about films of the year, one that offers an uncompromising look at the reality – and the enduring legacy – of the United States’ “peculiar institution.” The film, based on Northup’s firsthand account published in 1853, is one of a handful of slavery-themed films to be released over the past two years to mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of American slavery. Ejiofor spoke with Colorlines about the process of making “12 Years a Slave” and what he hopes audiences will take away from it.
What made you decide to take on this project? What was it about this film that you felt drawn to?
Many things. The fact that I had never seen a film like this. I’d never seen a film that was done from deep inside the experience of slavery and the day-to-day reality from inside the experience. I thought was just so remarkable, so powerful. I thought that Solomon Northup himself was an incredibly special human being and how he dealt with this situation and came out of it and had the kind of agency to write about it in such a poetic and humble way was incredible. But it wasn’t an easy film to jump into or to say yes to. I did have to take a moment of pause to figure out whether I was the guy to tell the story and to work out what my way into it was, in a sense. I definitely felt the responsibility of that; a deep responsibility. But I suppose in the end it was Solomon, and trying to reconnect with him as I re-read the book. I just felt the my journey in this would be to let Solomon sort of guide the process.
How did you prepare for this role?
Once everything was decided, the preparation became quite practical. I had to learn how to play the violin. I had to get down to the plantations and learn about logging and sugarcane and cotton-picking. In my lifetime I’ve done a lot of reading just generally about slavery, about the international aspect of that. So the specifics of the background of that, I was quite familiar with. [I] had to get back to [Northup’s] book and try to really work out who this guy really is. And I was also interested in what the history of the different plantations were. Even to this day, some of those plantations have been turned into museums so you can actually get a very specific sense of the place what was happening, what he would have heard on the wind, the rumors, the gossip. I felt like I wanted to have as immersive of an experience as he offered in the book.
Do you remember the first time you can remember learning about slavery and what your feelings were?
It’s sort of like ‘When did you know your name?’ I must have been very young. But when I watched “Roots,” everything just sort of solidified for me. I must have been under 10 when that came out and I think it was really important for me to see all the different aspects in that story and all those different relationships. And I suppose seeing the connection to Africa, that was important to me. And it became more important as I was researching “12 Years a Slave.” I was in Calabar in Nigeria reading local lists that they have in the slavery museum there; they have hundreds of thousands of people taken out of Nigeria and taken over to the States and the West Indies. I suppose there was a deep connection to all of that and I can never remember not knowing about it or hearing about it.
Northup was enslaved in Louisiana. Was there anything that surprised you when you went down to the plantations there, anything about the everyday nature of slavery?
Oh yeah. That’s the thing. If you’re doing a story from a slave’s point of view, you’re going to uncover things that you wouldn’t know unless you were covering it from that perspective. [For instance], the difficulties of a man finding a pen and paper was something that I found remarkable. It just didn’t occur to me because it’s one of those things we take for granted. And I didn’t have a sense of what the cost of a bar of soap could be or the differences between cutting trees and picking cotton and cutting sugarcane and how the nature of that work creates completely different plantations and totally different psychologies as a result.
It was endlessly fascinating understanding what the experience was and recognizing the kind of three-dimensional way that a remarkable and bizarre friendship develops between Solomon and Ford, his first slave owner. I remember reading that and thinking “How surreal is this?” That’s what creates the three-dimensional nature, is that you’re dealing with human beings. You’re dealing with people and people develop friendships under the most unlikely circumstances. Also, Alfre Woodard plays Mistress Shaw and in a remarkable moment in the film you realize that there are different levels of the social hierarchy and they surprise you.
So I do want to talk a bit about the brutality of the film. What do you think it does for the audience?
You can’t make a film like this without [honesty], otherwise it’s a disservice to Solomon Northup and the countless people that experienced these things. I think you have to understand the psychology of the time. I think that’s what it does in terms of the audience. You can put yourself in the position of Solomon, you can start to feel what being in his position must mean for his psychology. I think if you don’t depict any of the violence or you soften the violence then you don’t understand what he’s going through. It seems incredibly important for an audience to know and to be able to put themselves into his psychology.
There’s a lot more violence in the book than in the film, but I think that Steve was very selective with the way that he uses violence just to make the point and to keep the audience in the right psychological space that Solomon was in. Otherwise, I don’t think you can understand him or his decisions.
I want to get back to the point that you made about learning about slavery and it always being present. Though you grew up in the UK, you’re from a Nigerian family and you visited Nigeria quite often. What’s the relationship that you’ve experienced in Nigeria to the history of slavery?
It sort of depends on who you ask. There’s not just one thing. I think that with the whole of Africa, there’s this definite connection to the diaspora experience. One of the things that I was so moved [by] when I was in the slavery museum in Calabar is that there were these artist renderings of the imagined life and hardship of the people that were taken away. There’s that sense of being connected still across the water, of having a strong sense of connection to the diaspora experience. There’s something very rich about that. Of course it’s come back in different ways within Nigeria in terms of not only the slavery experience but of course that leading into this imperial adventure and countries being taken over entirely by empire. There’s a link to all of those experiences within the diaspora and it shouldn’t separate us. It connects us.