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UNIVERSAL TRUTHS
Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor speak about their work on 12 Years a Slave 

By Zoë Elton

 

“Laws change. Universal truths are constant,” says a character in 12 Years a Slave, a major work by one of the best filmmakers working today. It is that sense of truth, and getting to the root of truth, that permeates all of filmmaker Steve McQueen’s work. As its title suggests, his latest recounts the story of a free black man, Solomon Northup, who, in the mid-nineteenth century, was kidnapped and taken into slavery; the film is based on Northup’s memoir, first published in 1853. The hallmarks of McQueen’s filmmaking are honed to extraordinarily great effect in this, his third feature. As in both Hunger and Shame, here he examines material that is tough, untenable, almost taboo. Yet he connects with a core humanity that offers an entry point into the work for both heart and mind. For audiences who go on this journey, it can be an incredibly rich experience: tough—but also brilliant. 

I spoke recently with McQueen and his lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, shortly after the film’s highly lauded debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both men are British; Ejiofor is an esteemed actor on both screen and stage whose work has ranged from Steven Spielberg’s Amistad to acclaimed London stage roles like his Othello and Patrice Lumumba (in the recent A Season in the Congo.) Their collaboration, along with an extraordinary ensemble of actors—McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, terrific newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, and familiar faces Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch—gives voice to a difficult but necessary conversation about a particularly aberrant aspect of our history.

Talking about the project’s genesis, McQueen says that he wanted to make a film about slavery and “…needed an ‘in,’ and I thought about it and thought what was interesting was if it was a free man from the north who basically gets kidnapped and gets put through the assault course of slavery.” McQueen thought that this approach would allow “the audience to sort of attach to that person who gets dragged into slavery, and therefore, you see what he sees, you hear what he hears, you see things for the first time as that character would have done.” Initially, things went slowly; but as research progresssed, “My wife found this book called 12 Years a Slave. As soon as it was in my hands I never let go of it.”

The strategy of entering this story through Solomon’s experience is compelling; the spectrum of characters in his story are so vibrant and real that viewers might well feel as if they are living it. And yet the book, considered a bestseller in its time, is now largely unknown. I ask Ejiofor, who plays Solomon, whether he felt that he was redeeming this story for posterity. “Yeah, in a way I didn’t think about that in the moment but on reflection you absolutely want this to be a story that is known by people,” he says. “When I first got the script I had no idea about the story and about this book, and at this point I feel like it should be part of the curriculum in every country in the world! It’s a seminal piece of work about human respect and human dignity. It should be everywhere.”

I ask McQueen which characters in the book, other than Solomon, he most identified with. “All of them,” he replies emphatically. “All of them because they became so human. In some ways it made, for me, slavery real in a way, rather than simple illustrations of a lynching, or of Solomon’s back. It made the whole thing real.” Of the book’s rich material, McQueen says, “It was overflowing. That’s how rich it was. And therefore the most important thing was what was kept in, what was edited out. That amount of detail in the book…the book was a script, it was just a situation of getting it into a 133-minute film.”

Interestingly, detail is what Ejiofor cites when asked about McQueen as a director: that his sense of detail is really important in supporting an actor’s work. But, as he says, an actor can be in danger “of sticking within

our own formulas. You end up relying on your own tricks because you feel like, ‘Well, if I do this and this and this, the thing works.’ What’s so great about a director like Steve McQueen is he notices that, you know? And that’s the real distinction of a director who’s very watchful of that. Obviously, as an actor you don’t want to fall into that. If you’re working in combination with a director that’s very good, with a director that’s excellent, and also as a performer you’re alive to the possibility that you’re just kind of allowing it to happen in a way that you consider intellectually will be successful, then that’s a starting place for finding something unique. It may be unique for you, it may be unique for audiences.” 

Ejiofor’s search for the unique takes place under McQueen’s  artist’s eye. The way he uses picture is extraordinary: the observation of a face, the insight of a moment, the impeccable sense of timing as he holds his camera, often an unmoving frame, on an image. There is the feeling of an intuitive connection with the material that can take an audience deep, even at times beyond their comfort level. I ask him if he writes in a very visual way. “Yes and no, yes and no,” McQueen muses. “I write about something that I’m not standing in, so yes and no. Sometimes you find something better when you’re on location. Storyboards aren’t helpful. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about story and I’m about the actual environment and I’m about the actors. We’ll find it, it’s there. Just find it.” Nor does he see the script as a definitive roadmap for his actors, “The script is the place of departure,” he says. “It always has to be.” 

There is a scene in 12 Years a Slave in which we see Solomon hanging, strung up from a tree, ready for lynching, perched within a moment of his life on the very tips of his toes. And the lynching, although interrupted and its perpetrators sent off, has left him hanging. Literally. We see him full frame. Close up, feet muddy, holding onto life. Achingly long pictures that show him, there. People walk by, going about their business, avoiding. 

It is so amazingly shot—and it looks absolutely excruciating for an actor. I asked Ejiofor how he made it through this grueling sequence. “Reading this extraordinary passage in Northup’s book,” he says, “was the first moment of real change for me. I realized the depth of Solomon’s soul and the fact that he was going to survive this experience, because of his resolve.” When he did the scene, he became “aware of how connecting a piece of tissue that is in terms of an incredibly difficult, uncomfortable day. But at the same time it’s a kind of a glorious one in terms of having an experience that is so directly related the experience that he had. I couldn’t help but feel I was able to understand him a way that I hadn’t had before. So it was complex but it was a very moving day for me.”

Bringing Solomon Northup’s life to the screen in this way, at this time, and through the talents and sensibilities of McQueen, Ejiofor and their collaborators, suggests a remarkable serendipity. The film’s fearlessness, its direct sense of humanity, its unsentimental, nonjudgmental approach to this fractured piece of history all help make 12 Years a Slave not just brilliant, but important. It connects with the zeitgeist of our time, and allows us to bear witness to a former time through the lens of universal truths.