“12 Years a Slave” traces the story of Solomon Northup, an American violinist and carpenter kidnapped and sold as a slave in the mid-19th century. A poignant and painful feature film, for which the actors lived a visceral experience during the shooting.
12 Years A Slave : the true story of Solomon Northup
While he aims to make a film on slavery, Steve McQueen discovers thanks to his partner Bianca Stigter the book 12 Years a Slave, autobiography of Solomon Northup published in 1853. Unable to believe that he has never heard of it before, the British filmmaker is in shock upon reading the book, which evokes him Anne Frank’s Diary in its necessary character for the understanding of History. He therefore decides to adapt it, entrusting the writing of the script to the novelist and screenwriter John Ridley.
Released in 2014 in France, the feature film is worn by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who lends his features to Solomon Northup. In 1841, twenty years before the start of the Civil War, this violinist and carpenter lived in New York State with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children. Betrayed by two men pretending to be artists, Solomon is kidnapped and sent to New Orleans, where he was bought as a slave by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Being bullied by carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Solomon is sold by Ford to torturer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), owner of a cotton plantation. Victim and witness of the worst abuses, he does everything to find his family and his freedom.
Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Michael Kenneth Williams round out the cast of 12 Years a Slave. Nominated in nine Oscar categories, the feature film won three statuettes, including Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay.
A visceral experience
The shooting in Louisiana is trying for the actors. Awarded by Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the heartbreaking role of Patsey, Lupita Nyong’o remembers Vulture :
(We were) in the height of summer in Louisiana, so it was hot. It was extremely hot. (…) I realized how strong these people were. I mean, they picked up cotton over sixteen hours a day in this heat. A warmth that challenged me.
She also evokes the shots of one of the strongest scenes of the feature film, during which her character collapses after receiving numerous lashes:
It’s all about the cracking of the whip. We hear it. And we can feel it. I felt the wind with every stroke. I didn’t need much more. (…) I couldn’t see the whip. I could only react to sound and wind. So it was difficult. But that day could not have been more realistic for me because to prepare myself, I just had to be present.
Sharing several scenes of incredible violence, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender support each other and show each other kindness outside of takes, in order to get out of the context of the film as easily as possible.
An emotional shock for Michael Kenneth Williams
Guest on the Arsenio Hall talk show, the late Michael Kenneth Williams reveals for his part that emotion overwhelmed him during filming. The famous interpreter of Omar Little in Bugged entrusts :
There is a scene which is unfortunately not in the film… We were shooting this scene where my character Robert is dragged to the slave boat and where he revolts. He becomes crazy. On the fifth take we had just shot, Steve yelled ‘Cut!’ and something grabbed me, I don’t know what it was… I fell to the ground, I couldn’t stop crying and screaming. I couldn’t get up.
Comforted by the stunt coordinator, Michael Kenneth Williams then let go for about twenty minutes. The actor concludes on this subject:
I think what happened to me was that I got a glimpse of what our ancestors had to go through.
A complicated end of shooting for Chiwetel Ejiofor
Five years after the release of 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor assures him that despite the intensity of the shooting, he did not expect such a shock when he discovered Steve McQueen’s film. In the show Couch Surfing of People, he also explains that he neededa rehabilitation time once production is complete: