'12 Years' captures brutality, reality of slavery

Andrea Mandell
Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from '12 Years A Slave.'
  • The Steve McQueen-directed film hits select theaters Friday
  • The movie has already garnered significant Oscar buzz
  • But how will Americans react to the no-holds-barred look at a difficult chapter in U.S. history%3F

TORONTO — The p-word caught in their mouths like cotton.

Film-festival favorite 12 Years a Slave showcases slavery baldly, without cushion or respite — not just physical atrocities, but also harsh language from centuries past. "There's plenty of the n-word, but when you say, 'That's my property,' I think that's as jarring and sort of disturbing as the n-word," says actor Michael Fassbender. "It's such a terrible word."

The Steve McQueen–directed, Brad Pitt–produced film (in select theaters Friday) stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a kidnapped free man who bears beatings, lashings and a slow sap of dignity under Fassbender's psychopathic plantation owner, Edwin Epps.

The film is based on a true story. The real Solomon Northup, played by Ejiofor in the movie, wrote of his enslavement in his autobiography. In 1841 he was living as a free man in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and three children. But Northup, an accomplished violinist, was tricked into a trip to Washington, D.C., to perform, where instead he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the film, Ejiofor is stripped, shackled and thrown onto a black-market slave ship, which chugs toward the Deep South under Hans Zimmer's nightmarish score.

An ugly rotation of white masters await. First he's sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher who "doesn't practice what he preaches," says Cumberbatch. "He's somebody that I find morally repugnant because he's weak and incapable and compromising."

The work — chopping lumber — proves a manageable existence under Ford's mild rule, until the captive overestimates his place and earns sudden transfer to Epps' brutal cotton fields, where "all the rules are out the window," says Fassbender. Slaves live under a constant threat of violence. Personhood all but disappears.

"Solomon always thinks that he's in a battle for his freedom," says Ejiofor. "And of course he's going to think that, initially: 'I've got to get out of here.' And then he realizes at a certain point that he's actually in a battle for his mind."

Director Steve McQueen, left, Adepero Oduye and Chiwetel Ejiofor on the set of '12 Years a Slave.'

Ejiofor is new to McQueen's circle. He first broke out 16 years ago in Amistad and has spent years climbing the ranks in films such as Children of Men and Kinky Boots.

Arriving in New Orleans, he was watchful of Fassbender's brotherly relationship with McQueen, which goes back to 2008's Hunger, the movie that put Fassbender on the map, and 2011's Shame, which cemented his status in Hollywood.

"They speak to each other in grunts," says Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, a slave subjected to Epps' mercurial favor. "They hardly say anything to each other. Between takes Steve would come over and make a sound like (grunts). And Michael would be like, 'Yeah.' And then they'd be like, 'OK.' And I'd (go), 'What just happened? I have no idea!' "

"Because Michael was there the first three weeks, it meant I could observe their relationship, their dynamic," Ejiofor says. "Obviously there's that tension between an actor and a director initially, because I hadn't worked with Steve before and he hadn't worked with me before. And we didn't know whether we could dance, basically."

McQueen knew after Shame he wanted to focus on slavery, but needed a way in. Northup, he says, is a character reflective of modern audiences.

"He's a family man who's an extraordinary talent, and he gets pulled into this surreal nightmare," says McQueen. "It's very close to sort of the Brothers Grimm ... fairy tales, (in which) children are in a happy home and then they get forced into a situation and then they are reprieved, they come out of it at the other end. It's that kind of journey."

But in Epps' sweltering cotton fields, reprieve is a mythic fantasy.

What you see in the film is "historically accurate," says Ejiofor. "The first day of shooting I remember was 108 degrees, out picking cotton in the middle of the Epps plantation. There's no catharsis in that. The only thing that's happening is you're trying to (the actor mimics picking cotton), getting pricks in your hand. Maybe the lash of a whip in the corner and somebody passing out over there.

"That's it, day in and day out," he says. "And there's something about that that is part of the dynamic of the Epps plantation. It's only in that sort of environment that this kind of insanity can breed."

No modern film has so boldly brought America's darkest days into focus. If mass audiences react like those in festival screenings, they will be mesmerized, paralyzed; eyes glazed at the odyssey unfolding onscreen. Even the actors were stunned by the totality of the experience.

"After the screening ... I went into shock for about two hours," says Fassbender, who first saw the film at its debut in Telluride, Colo., last month. (Ejiofor chose to first screen it alone in London.)

"It's subject matter that has a tough time getting made," says Brad Pitt, who produced the film and cameos as an abolitionist Canadian carpenter. "It's an incredibly important story."

The first scene Ejiofor remembers shooting with Fassbender called for Epps to chase Northup madly around a pig pen with a machete, in a jealous rage over the absence of Patsey, whom Epps loves possessively.

It's momentarily funny — buffoonish, even. "I saw it the first time, I was thinking — there's something humorous about it until it ends," says Ejiofor. "And then I'm like, '(expletive), you don't want to go through that (crap) every day.' "

The cast continued to push themselves throughout shooting. In one scene, Ejiofor hangs from a tree as punishment in one endless, unblinking take, strung up just enough so that his toes can tread desperately for relief on the ground below. In another, Epps attacks Patsey, a scene that culminated in Fassbender briefly fainting.

"That was kind of a strange one," he says. "I just blacked out and came to sort of in the middle of the scene. That's never happened to me." The residue of playing a vitriolic character like Epps, he contends, was stronger than anticipated. "You're doing things that are quite challenging, I guess, mentally and physically. The good thing is it's over a short period of time so it's very intense focus for a concentrated amount of time. So you think to yourself, 'I just have to be crazy for another couple of weeks…' "

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender star in the drama '12 Years a Slave.'

By phone, McQueen seems baffled by queries about the film's violence.

"This actually happened," he repeats. "Either we're making a film about slavery or we're not. And in order to make a film about slavery, obviously we have to understand how people kept slaves. So therefore one has to portray how people were treated. Not to do so would be a betrayal of people's lives."

The question is how audiences — particularly American audiences — will swallow this high dose of history. Last year, Quentin Tarantino filtered Django Unchained through the lens of a spaghetti Western; in this year's The Butler, Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey's characters travel back to the cotton plantation of the White House servant's youth.

But 12 Years a Slave does far more than avenge or reflect. It captures the era, shining a light on the innards of a real, unconscionable time through an authentic first-person narrative.

"This is something that affects all of us," says Cumberbatch, acknowledging that it's going to be a "harder thing for Americans to digest."

"Obviously it's American history, that's clear," says Fassbender, but "it's universal through elements. The British were doing it before. I think the whole world is responsible for this sort of thing."

The film's next stop may well be the Oscar stage. But Fassbender has said he will not campaign this year, and Ejiofor keeps that sort of talk at bay.

"I just want people to come to it without all of that," Ejiofor says. "Without all the buzz and the hype and the this and the that. It's the story of a man going through an extraordinary circumstance. And I do feel it needs to be engaged with in its own quiet, reflective way."