Steve McQueen's new film challenges audiences to view slavery from the inside out
But the film belongs to Ejiofor, the London-born actor of Nigerian descent who's impressed critics with his star turns in the British films Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots. "He's the only person I thought could play Solomon," McQueen effuses. "There's a genteelness and a sophistication about Chiwetel. [The character] ventures into a place where he [must] hold on to his dignity, his humanity. Chiwetel was the person who could do that. There's some kind of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte quality to him. He's a gentleman."
Solomon's foil—and his greatest victimizer—is Edwin Epps, the kind of sadist who wakes up his field hands in the middle of the night and forces them to dance and play music for his amusement. McQueen gave the role to Fassbender, he explains, "because he's a great actor, he'd pull it out of the bag. I knew with the right environment, something extraordinary could happen. And I think it did."
12 Years' embarrassment of riches also includes a trio of black actresses, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong'o, and Adepero Oduye, who play female slaves occupying very different levels of the hierarchy within the plantation. The women's stories show how life under the whip could be quite variegated depending on gender, beauty, and a slave-owner's particular mix of sexual greed and weakness. "Women were taken advantage of in the most terrible, horrible ways," McQueen says. "Within that, of course, people would make choices." The film, he concludes, is about survival.
"Everyone thinks they have some kind of idea of slavery, but most people don't have any idea of slavery," McQueen says. "They don't. The history's always brushed aside as if we know this, but we have to open our eyes and look at it. I imagine people are sometimes too frightened to look. But I think we have to look, [so it can] recede in our future."
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