“I had the idea of a free man who was kidnapped and brought into slavery,” the director says. “My wife [cultural critic Bianca Stigter] suggested Solomon’s book. I had never even heard of it. It was amazing — a biography of America, a first-hand account of what was going on then. It practically read like a script. And I liked the way the book explored slavery as an economic system. I didn’t want to portray slavery in black and white. It was immensely more complicated than that. Lines were blurred. It wasn’t as straightforward as we tend to think about it.”
McQueen’s previous two films — 2008’s Hunger, about a prison hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, and 2011’s Shame, an NC-17 rated drama about sexual addiction — were too graphic and extreme for mainstream audiences. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen sets aside the rigorous style of those pictures for a more accessible narrative approach. He also shows surprising restraint with physical violence: Yes, there are scenes of whippings and torture that are difficult to watch. But the emotional and psychological violence in 12 Years a Slave is arguably more disturbing, because the movie puts us inside the head of a man who has had everything taken away and must learn how to survive in this strange, dangerous new world.
Solomon’s refusal to give up hope — unlike some of his fellow slaves — anchors the film in a deep humanity. “I don’t want to survive,” he says. “I want to live.” Although the audience knows Solomon will live long enough to be freed and reunited with his family, he believes he could be killed at any moment for the slightest transgression. Early in the film, when he rises up against a farmhand (Paul Dano) who torments him one time too many, the moment is incredibly cathartic — finally, a chance to fight back — but it also fills you with dread, because you know Solomon will be gravely punished for what he has done.
“The slaves knew what would happened to them if they rebelled, but sometimes they couldn’t help themselves,” McQueen says. “There was a huge slave revolt in Louisiana in 1811, before Solomon got there. They took arms against their plantation owner and killed his son. Eventually, more than 100 slaves were killed. They were caught and tortured and decapitated. Every head was put on a pole and placed outside each of the slave shacks as a kind of warning. The constant threat of fear and reprisal was a part of their everyday lives.”
That emotional head space was something that took awhile for Ejiofor to inhabit, because the extremity of it has no counterpart in his everyday life.
“When I read the script, I was stunned by it, because it told the story from inside the character’s head,” the actor says. “It took me a moment to get my head around it and dive in. But as soon as I committed to the project and stepped in front of the camera, I started to understand Solomon and how he thought. I felt something profound. It became a privilege to go on that journey, to get down to Louisiana and those plantations and out in those fields and recreate what actually happened there. I stopped thinking about the camera at all. I was living moment to moment, like Solomon did. I felt like I had scurried down this rabbit hole and was stuck in the darkest of fairy tales.”