Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the 12 Years a Slave juggernaut, said he was blown away when he read the script and book of the same name. Lupita Nyong’o said she never fathomed in her wildest dreams that she could be a part of a project of this magnitude so fresh out of the Yale School of Drama and Michael Fassbender, who plays the psychotic slave owner, said he was in tears because director Steve McQueen’s script was “incredible.”
They are far from alone in feeling baptized in a life-altering experience. Many people’s ears are still ringing today from the deafening ovation that bellowed out from the Toronto Film Festival, where 12 Years a Slave became a certified runaway sensation, and continues to reverberate across the country in a way that no movie on the topic of slavery ever has. The Oscar buzz wafting off of this film has forced American pop culture to stop in its tracks and take notice.
The movie, opened this past weekend in select theaters and will open to wider distribution was directed by rapidly rising director Steve McQueen (who also directed the critically acclaimed films Hunger and Shame). The movie traces the life of upstate New York resident Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) as a man of high education, pedigree and prestige, who was tricked and captured and summarily sold into slavery in the deep south in 1841, ending up in Louisiana, where he was subjected to unspeakable inhumanity during his forced subjugation for a dozen years, thus accounting for the title of his book and the movie.
After the initial emotions of reading the script peaked and ebbed for the actors, and after the cast and crew watched film for the first time, Ejiofor and Nyong’o spoke in hushed, almost reverential tones about the intense spiritual experience that neither one of them will ever be able to erase from their memories, not that they’d ever want to.
“It was a real privilege to bring Solomon and the other people on the film to life,” said Ejiofor. “It’s just a remarkable experience … and the greatest working experience that I’ve ever had.”
Ejiofor, 36, has been a constant presence in British theater, films and television since Steven Spielberg cast him, quite appropriately, another slave epic, Amistad, in 1996. He starred in the indie hits Kinky Boots and Dirty Pretty Things and has worked with directors as varied as Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Ridley Scott (American Gangster), Joss Whedon (Serenity) and Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men). But it is 12 Years a Slave that has catapulted the actor to the forefront of the Oscar-award conversation, a dizzying transformation of circumstances.
He’s not alone. Nyong’o eyes glisten and she talks as if she is still dazed by the experience. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be a part of this type of project or magnitude right after graduating from drama school. So it has been a gift all the way around,” she said. “It was a real privilege to be a part of history personally. I have learned so much through this process I would otherwise just not know.”
Nyong’o is a Mexican-born and African-raised (Kenya) thespian who studied at the Yale School of Drama before landing the breakout debut role of the year. She stars as Patsey in McQueen’s soul-searing drama, a slave and mistress who endures unspeakable acts of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her psychotic owners, played by fellow Oscar hopeful Michael Fassbender as well as his wife, played by Sarah Paulson.
The film intermingles beauty and brutality in a way few films of modern times have been able to do. Despite the disquieting subject matter and often-graphic imagery, 12 Years a Slave won the Audience Award at September’s Toronto Film Festival and has sparked thought-provoking discussions about race and slavery and as Ejiofor alludes, the time is right for this discussion.
The praise for 12 Years a Slave by the most reputable publications has been nearly universal. But there have been scant, subtle rumblings that such an American story could be directed by and star three individuals (Ejiofor and Nyong’o and director Steve McQueen) who were not born or raised in the United States. Ejiofor, a West African native and London raised, spoke for the three when he rightfully and eloquently articulated that the Middle Passage/Slave Trade was, and always has been, an international institution. “I’m very connected to this experience. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians were taken to America, Louisiana, the Caribbean and South America. I felt that. I felt that it was, and was always going to be, an international story anyways. Always. I think everyone in the African diaspora is connected to these issues,” Ejiofor explains. “So telling this story felt like a responsibility. And the wider aspect of this, about what it says about human respect and human dignity.
Steve McQueen who was also raised in London mentioned that his family is from the West Indies. And, of course, the slave trade in the West Indies was an extraordinary event. Ninety-seven to 98 percent of the people working on this film were Americans. It’s an American story, but it has a wider impact. I felt it was always correct that there was an international element to the movie because (there) was an international element to these events.”
Speaking of being connected to this event, Nyong’o said the meeting with the descendants of 12 Years a Slave author Solomon Northup caressed her soul. “It was incredible to be in a room full of people who had Solomon’s blood coursing through their veins,” she said, her words thick with wonderment and her eyes registering awe. “And then the people and their contemporaries. Some of them were meeting (each other) for the first time. I felt privileged to be part of this family reunion. Very excited that their story was going to be shared with a larger audience. I look forward to them seeing the film and talking to them some more.”
12 Years a Slave opened in select theaters on Oct. 18. This is a must see for all.