NEW YORK – Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave,” is a gripping film about a long and horrific period in his life in pre-Civil War Louisiana. Northup, a free Black man living with his family in upstate New York, was tricked into traveling to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Already there is a lot of Oscar buzz for the film, directed by British director Steve McQueen and his fellow countryman, Chiwetel Ejiofor — plus actor Michael Fassbender, who portrays a cruel and sadistic slave owner. Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, plays an abolitionist carpenter whose help leads to Northup ultimately regaining his freedom. ’12 Years a Slave’ opens Friday.
During a recent interview, Ejiofor talked about the challenges of becoming Northup and attempting to showcase a realistic image of plantation life in the American South in the 1840s and ‘50s.
Q: If you could have sat down with Solomon Northup himself, what would you have liked to ask him?
A: Getting into that character and uncovering that was a journey. The first time I read the script, it was all about the story — and I was amazed I had not heard about it before. And then when I read the actual autobiography that the script was based on I realized this story was really about him and his incredible tenacity and strength of spirit. I would liked to have asked how he maintained his love of life and his sense of himself — despite all that he endured. Then, to have the wherewithal to come out of it, and write about it so eloquently and beautifully.
Q: What are your thoughts about how the cruelty of the slave owners — principally Michael Fassbender’s character — are presented in the film?
A: I think one of the overall themes of the film is about human respect and human dignitiy, and the way that we attempt to achieve that. Also, what happens when that is taken away. What’s interesting in this story out of reflex. Nobody is deciding they are going to be a good guy or a bad guy, but are stuck within a structure — an economic system built on slavery — where things seem necessary. There are thus certain assumptions made about people. And if those are made without any respect for people or any dignity, then these situations happen. You have to be very watchful that this doesn’t ever happen again.
Q: This movie was shot in Louisiana and Mississippi. Is it fair to assume the heat in the South played a role in the filming?
A: The first day we were shooting it was like 108 degrees and a very high humidity, which was a shock for me. The next day, we did find out that first day was a record-breaking heat wave, which was a great relief to me personally, because if that was normal, I don’t think I could have finished the film! We were really exposed on the plantation out there in the sun. There was no shade.
Q: Religion is used as one of the themes. On the one hand, the plantation owners’ idea that [slavery] was God’s will. For the slaves, it was the belief that God’s love would eventually save them, saved their sanity. Your thoughts about that?
A: That’s the thing. Solomon’s journey starts out with him thinking he’s in a battle for his freedom, but he realizes at a certain point he’s in a battle for his mind. One of the things religion does in that journey is to help him keep his sanity and his sense of community.