'12 Years A Slave' Was A Film That 'No One Was Making'

Oct 24, 2013
Originally published on October 24, 2013 1:46 pm

The new movie 12 Years a Slave has been receiving high praise — critic David Denby recently described it in The New Yorker as "easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery." The film is adapted from the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, who had been a free black man in upstate New York. A husband and father, he was a literate, working man, who also made money as a fiddler. But in 1841, after being lured to Washington, D.C., with the promise of several days' work fiddling with the circus, he was kidnapped into slavery. Over the next 12 years before finally winning his freedom, he became the property of a series of different plantation owners — one who was especially cruel and brutal.

Director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who stars in the film, join Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss the making of the movie. Filming in Louisiana lent "so many ideas and images," McQueen says. "One of the most horrible things happened in one of the most beautiful places."

Ejiofor's other films include Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots and Children of Men. He's now starring in Dancing on the Edge, the new Starz network series about a black band leader in London in the 1930s. McQueen's other films include Shame, about a sex addict, and Hunger, based on the story of Bobby Sands, who died leading a hunger strike of imprisoned IRA members protesting their treatment.


Interview Highlights

On why they wanted to make the film

Steve McQueen: It was a film I wanted to see and no one was making it, so I thought to myself, "Well, I want to do this. I want to make this film." So it's one of those things where there's just a huge hole in the canon of cinema. It's such a big part of history, a huge part of American history that I thought, "That's a story I want to tell."

Chiwetel Ejiofor: My father was a great believer in the ideas of an African diaspora — of a sense of unity amongst African people and people of African heritage, and that was the attitude I suppose that I grew up with: that we were all united in this. ... Even though [we] were then spread across the world because of it. ... Being of Nigerian heritage and going over to Louisiana, you just start to feel connected to the whole sense of [slavery], to the international nature of it, to the complete absence of humanity that surrounded it.

On adapting the memoir

McQueen: I had the idea of having a free man from the North ... who gets kidnapped and pulled into the maze of slavery. I liked the idea that the audience follows this person in every step that he takes within the context of slavery. ...

[My wife] found this book called 12 Years a Slave, and I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. ... Slowly but surely I realized that most people, in fact all the people I knew did not know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero. She's not just a national hero, she's a world hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.

On Ejiofor's experience filming the movie's violent scenes

Ejiofor: [The violent scenes] are very necessary for us to understand Solomon's psychological journey to understand who he is, what he's endured, and in a wider sense, what people endured in that time. I think it gives audiences a chance to really understand the inner workings of what's happening. Those sequences ended up having a sense of privilege about them, actually, and I think if you're playing a real person you're always seeking to, in a way, legitimize your relationship with that person, to have the right to tell their story. I felt that sometimes when we were doing things that Solomon describes in the book that he went through and we were re-creating these moments as accurately as we could — and that would mean me being uncomfortable — what it meant was that it legitimized our relationship, and it made it easier for me to walk with him and tell his story.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "12 Years A Slave" was described by David Denby in the New Yorker as easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. My guests are the star of the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and its director, Steve McQueen. The movie is adapted from the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Northup had been a free black man in Upstate New York, a husband and father. He was literate; he was a working man who also made money as a fiddler. But in 1841, after being lured to Washington, D.C., with the promise of several days' work fiddling with the circus, he was kidnapped into slavery. Over the next 12 years, before finally winning his freedom, he became the property of a series of different plantation owners, one who was especially cruel and brutal.

GROSS: Chiwetel Ejiofor's other films include "Dirty, Pretty Things," "Kinky Boots" and "Children of Men." He's now starring in "Dancing on the Edge," the new Starz Network series about a black bandleader in London in the 1930s. Director Steve McQueen's other films are "Shame," about a sex addict; and "Hunger," based on the story of Bobby Sands, who died leading a hunger strike of imprisoned IRA members protesting their treatment.

Let's start with a clip from "12 Years a Slave," just after Solomon Northup has been kidnapped and sold to slave traders and is on a ship heading toward Louisiana. He's talking to other slaves on the ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Days ago I was with my family in my home. Now you tell me all is lost, tell no one who I am, that's the way to survive. Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.

GROSS: Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, welcome to FRESH AIR. Steve McQueen, let me start with you. Why did you want to make a film adaptation of a memoir by a free man from the North who was kidnapped into slavery? Why did you choose that book?

STEVE MCQUEEN: Well, what happened originally is I had an idea of having a free man from the north, because I was thinking about ideas and how I can have an in into the narrative, a free man from the North who gets kidnapped and pulled into the maze of slavery. And I liked the idea that the audience follows this person in every step that he takes within the context of slavery, just to illuminate what that world was.

And I was having a bit of difficulty. I was working with John Ridley on the script, and we were having a little bit of difficulty. And my wife said to me, well, why don't you look into firsthand accounts of slavery. I though oh yeah, of course. And she did some research, and I did some research, but she found this book called "12 Years a Slave." And I read this book, and I was totally stunned.

It was like something sort of - a bolt coming out of the sky. And at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. How come I did not know this book? And slowly but surely I realized that most people, in fact all the people I knew, did not know this book.

And, you know, I live in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank is a national hero. She's not just a national hero, she's a world hero. And for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before, a firsthand account of slavery. And I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.

GROSS: Steve McQueen, I know one of your parents is from Grenada and one from Trinidad. So they're both from islands in the Caribbean. Were their ancestors slaves, do you know?

MCQUEEN: Yes, of course, yes they were slaves. My trajectory, as such, of being introduced to slavery was fairly immediate because my parents were from the West Indies. And, you know, at school there was reference to slavery but not much. So it's one of those things which I found out through my parents and obviously traveling back to the West Indies.

And, you know, I have a family tree going back to the first African on my mother's side who came from Ghana. So it's one of those things which I definitely had the connection with. And, I mean, the only difference I would say between myself and African-American is their boat went right, and my boat went left.

GROSS: Chiwetel Ejiofor, your parents are from Nigeria. I know your father is no longer alive, but did they tell you anything about what they learned about the slave trade from an African perspective?

EJIOFOR: Well, my father was a great believer in the ideas of African kind of diaspora, of a sense of unity amongst African people and people of African heritage. And that's what I - that was the attitude, I suppose, that I grew up with, that we are all united in this - almost by this thing, even though we were then spread across the world because of it, you know.

So, you know, that was their attitude. They were also aware of the, you know, the number of people from Nigeria who were taken out of Nigeria and the bite of Benin and taken over to America and to the West Indies. You know, this all was kind of very - came to me very specifically when I was in Calabar, when I was in Nigeria, when I was at the slave museum in Calabar, finishing a film there.

And on my last day, because I was heading over down towards Louisiana to start shooting on this, I went to the slave museum, and there were just lists, these roll calls of people, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people taken out of that area.

And so, you know, being of Nigerian heritage, going over to Louisiana, you just start to feel connected to the whole sense of it, to the international nature of it, to the complete sort of absence of humanity that surrounded it.

GROSS: I think of "12 Years a Slave" as a very experiential film, and it's much more about Solomon Northup's experience as a slave than it is about, like, the larger historical context of slavery. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, what that meant for you is that you're going to be doing a lot of suffering on camera.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean, you know, like it's - your body is put through so much. And, you know, just like one example is early in the film, when you're - after you're kidnapped, you are beaten with a plank of wood and beaten so hard that the wood breaks. There's whippings, and you're hanging. And were you uncomfortable about the idea of taking on a role in which you knew you'd have to endure so much suffering because I'm sure even though, obviously, you weren't really physically injured in the way that your character is, you emotionally had to experience that to the extent that you're capable of as an actor?

EJIOFOR: The - you know, those aspects of the film are, you know, I suppose in a way - I mean, they're very necessary for - to kind of understand Solomon's psychological journey, you know, to understand who he is, what he's endured and actually in a wider sense what people endured, what people endured in that time.

And I think it gave audiences and gives audiences a chance to really understand the inner workings of what's happening. And so, you know, those sequences ended up having a sense of privilege about them, actually. And, you know, it sort of - I think if you were playing somebody - if you're playing a real person, you're always seeking to, in a way, legitimize your relationship with that person, you know, to have the right to tell their story.

And I felt that sometimes when we were doing things that Solomon describes in the book that he went through, and we were recreating these moments as accurately as we could, and that would mean me being uncomfortable, what it meant was it was - it sort of legitimized our relationship, and it made it easier for me to walk with him and to tell his story.

GROSS: There's a scene I want to ask you about that's a real kind of emotional turning point for Solomon Northup in the film. He is forced to whip a young woman who he's very fond of, and he knows that if he doesn't whip her that the slave master will do it. So, like, he figures, you know, he'll whip her lightly, but he can't get away with that. The slave owner demands a harsher whipping.

And I think that would be a very telling point in the emotional life of Solomon Northup, and I was wondering if you could each talk about what that scene meant to you, that he was put in the position of knowing that things would be even worse if he didn't whip her himself.

MCQUEEN: Well, I think, you know, it's - this is what we're talking about. I mean, this is why people were kept in captivity for 400 years because of those kind of events. And this is a true event. So what happened at that scene is that, you know, Epps, the slave master you're talking about, says to him if he doesn't do it, he will kill everyone here. What choice does he have?

I mean, there are the kind of choices that have been made, unfortunately, throughout history, throughout the most horrendous moments in history, that people do in order to survive.

It's almost - you know, the thing is that it's not necessarily what Epps, the plantation owner, is going for. He's not necessarily doing this in order to hurt Solomon psychologically. He is going through his own crisis in the sense that he is in love with this girl, with Patsy, this slave girl, and he is in such kind of conflict and anger and self-hatred about that that in the moment, even though he wants to whip her, he can't, and he's unable to do it, which is why he sort of almost casually turns to Solomon and orders him to.

And then what that does, of course, to Solomon is it's the physical and the psychological, and that is I think what is always in balance and always in play in these places and these scenes and in the book and in the way that Solomon describes what is happening is that there's the physical aspect of it, but there's also the psychological.

And in a way I think that Solomon was able to - at that point had found ways of protecting himself from Master Epps, for protecting himself physically, for protecting himself emotionally, for protecting himself psychologically. But this was something else. This was something he did not envisage, that he would have to be forced to participate in injuring somebody that he cared so deeply about.

So it's - in a sense it just speaks to all the levels of captivity and the three-dimensional nature of what was going on.

GROSS: My guests are Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the new film "12 Years A Slave," and Steve McQueen, the film's director. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve McQueen, the director of the new film "12 Years A Slave," and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the star of the film. He plays Solomon Northup, a free man from the North who is kidnapped into slavery in the South and is forced to be a slave for 12 years until he manages to get out.

You might - Steve McQueen, you might really disagree with me on this, but having seen all three of your movies - "Hunger," about Bobby Sands, who's played by Michael Fassbender...

MCQUEEN: Michael Fassbender.

GROSS: I mean, Michael Fassbender is absolutely skeletal by the time the movie ends. And then Michael Fassbender stars again in "Shame," in which he's - I guess you'd call him a sex addict, but it's hard to say if he gets any pleasure out of sex. I mean, it's a compulsion that he has to follow.

MCQUEEN: Well, after a while, most addicts don't get pleasure out of what they do. It becomes a necessity.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly, and now "12 Years A Slave," in which there's, you know, again very physical suffering. And so I can't help but think there's something that interests you about psychic and physical suffering and that your movies are all about the body in some way, you know, the hunger strike, the sexual compulsion, the physical endurance of somebody who is a slave, but their body and spirit manages to survive.

MCQUEEN: No, listen, I'm interested in the hunger strike, it was the biggest thing politically to happen in Britain in the past 27 years, 10 men dying of hunger in a British prison cell. It was deafening, but no one was speaking about it. That's why I made the picture.

As far as "Shame" was concerned, you know, this phenomenon, sex addiction, and I wanted to investigate that because it's something that everyone has a relationship with sex, and it was - again it was just this elephant in the room, and that's why I wanted to make the picture about it because it was about this addiction, which has been sort of, how can I say, has been thriving also due to the Internet.

And slavery, well, I mean, I don't know how obvious you could be. I mean, all you've got to do is walk down the street, and you see the evidence of slavery in everyday life. But there's a huge silence about it. It's a deafening silence about it. You know, why are the prison population of black males so huge? Why is poverty in that community so huge? Why is mental health, why is education so poor, why? When you ask yourself that question, it all leads down to what happened in slavery because no one has - you know, once it was - you know, once it has stopped, you know, everyone was left to get on with their own devices but without a platform, without a leg up.

And there you have the evidence of slavery. So these are huge events, deafening events, which I feel needed a platform. And the only platform for me as an artist was cinema because for me it's the greatest art form there is. The question is, you know, why hasn't there been a film like this on slavery.

GROSS: One of the things that you do in some of your movies and certainly in "12 Years a Slave" is have scenes last a little longer than we'd expect because things are edited so quickly now. I mean, like, there's a lot of movies that are - scenes last for such a short period of time, and the same goes for a lot of TV shows, particularly comedy series now.

And there are a few scenes, without mentioning them by name, in which something terrible is being endured, and just as we think, like, oh, this scene's going to end, it doesn't, and you keep our eye on that scene longer than we expected and longer than is comfortable, which I think is very intentional on your part because you want it to be more uncomfortable than oh, it's another movie scene.

MCQUEEN: But also to be present, I think it's not - yes, those are the sort of fundamentals of it, but what it's to do, it's to do with being present as a viewer, to being there, to shoot things in real time rather than movie time. So for example the sequence where Patsy's getting whipped that we spoke about before, to be present within that and to be sort of - that shot of it is 10 minutes - to be present in that is to sort of lose the frame and to be - to hold the tension and to not - you know, to be there in a kind of reality.

That's what I want. That was the chosen effect, what I wanted. And it works -for me it works, in a way, because it doesn't allow the viewer off the hook.

GROSS: In shooting the movie, Steve McQueen, you have an incredible eye in making films, and I'm wondering if you referred to daguerreotype photographs or old paintings or any other historical artifacts to...

MCQUEEN: No, it was the state of Louisiana, it was New Orleans. It was those plantations. It was that that sort of - myself and Sean Bobbit and a cameraman I've been working with for 13 years, it was just the environment, the landscape that sort of was so rich and that it just leant to so many ideas an images.

You know, it was - we went in there naked and came out there fully clothed. It was just amazing how, you know, you just look at things, and you find things in that environment, it was so rich. And, of course, like I said, you know, before, the most beautiful, horrible things happen in the most beautiful places. It was just so rich. And the sound of the cicadas, they almost act like a choir at certain points. I mean, it was kind of amazing, amazing.

GROSS: Did you see, besides being on the, like, former plantations in Louisiana where you shot, did you see any other artifacts of slavery that survived?

MCQUEEN: Yes, we saw the actual slave shacks. There were a lot of slave shacks, which are still there, which I think in the - they were vacated. I mean, what happened was that after the slave shacks were built, they were there. So what happened was I think people actually lived in them for a while, and I think they were vacated during sort of the late '70s. I think the last people living living there, lived there in the late '70s.

But they were there, and you had these shotgun houses that are still there, too. It was pretty incredible. It's a shame that they're not being looked after very well, of course, they've been left to sort of the elements. But there you have it.

GROSS: So in getting back to the idea that you want us to experience what slavery was like, and I think that happens. And it's difficult to endure. It's a very painful film to watch because you are putting yourself, as a viewer, in the shoes of Solomon Northup. And what makes it, you know, especially easy I think for everybody to do that is he starts as a free man.

And you know, like, well, you're a free person, he was a free person, and imagine what it would be like to suddenly be a slave. I mean, it's just so easy to identify whether you are descendent from a slave or not. But there's so much suffering that you endure secondhand in watching the movie. And I guess I'm wondering where is the line for you between, like, how much you want to put your audience through and how much is just going to be like a little too much for a film.

Did you - is that the kind of thing you think about when setting out to make a film like this?

MCQUEEN: Well yeah, I think when - if you read the book, it's a lot, it's too much, and actually there are five acts of violence in the whole film, five in two hours and 11 minutes. But it's to do with the context. And that's the issue because I think people don't want to think of the past, don't - they would rather be blind than sort of look at what the evidence of things which are around them. People don't want that responsibility. They would rather look at a horror movie or a thriller, and people get shot in the head every 15 minutes.

But, you know, I feel that, you know, it's like looking at "Schindler's List" or looking at "The Pianist," looking at whatever Holocaust film there is. That's our responsibility as humans to sort of reflect on our recent past in order to find out where we are and where we're going, particularly with this particular subject because it seems that there's a huge sort of - I won't say ambivalence. I would just say a huge sort of not wanting to look at oneself. But it's important.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

MCQUEEN: Thank you so much.

EJIOFOR: Pleasure, thank you.

GROSS: Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the new film "12 Years a Slave." Steve McQueen directed the film. We'll talk with a historian about slavery in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.