12 Years a Slave is probably the most painful film I’ve seen all year, but I mean that in an emotionally moving sense. Though I understand why many people found Lee Daniels’ The Butler tremendously moving (I didn’t), I would have to think that 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and based on the memoir by a freeman named Solomon Northup who was kidnapped in 1844 and sold into slavery, will be emotionally unbearable for them. It is that effective, and a major reason for that besides the harrowing real-life story is star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup from his carefree origins as a freeman to the depths of his despair as a slave.
He spoke to Reuters about his concerns about taking the role and how the locations the film was shot at influenced his work.
Ejiofor points out the ironic duality of an actor’s mind. First, actors are always looking for their best possible scripts, and he says, “You wait all your life for great scripts, you are reading everything, hassling people, your agent, you are trying to get a great part.” But then, once an actor gets a great script, a second mindset takes over. He points out, “Then this script comes through the door, and you read it and it is a great script and a great part and you think ‘Can I do this? Am I ready to do this? Is it for me?'”
Though a movie about slavery undoubtedly involves dark material, Ejiofor points out another type of irony: how beautiful the Louisiana landscapes are where 12 Years a Slave was filmed and how horrible what took places on those landscapes was. He explains, “The plantations are beautiful, amazing places. And Louisiana is extraordinary, it’s alive, and the bayou and the swamps and the plantations and the trees. And within all that, there is this other world – this deep darkness in the way we’re treating each other. The place was very informative. It helped me understand the world that he was going into.”
Though Ejiofor has received plenty of awards buzz for his performance, he confesses that he’s more inspired by engaging an audience than by accolades. He says, “To tell someone the story is one of the most deeply enriching experiences that I have ever had as a performer or an actor. And I don’t really want to distract from that. People should watch the film with their own eyes and see if it correlates to their experience or doesn’t.”