Just as remarkable as Ejiofor’s performance is the portrayal by Fassbender of the maniacal Epps, a monster far more complex than anything the Grimm Brothers ever dreamed up.
“Epps is psychotic, for sure, but there are various elements to his sickness,” says Fassbender, who previously worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame. “He’s a plantation owner obsessed with being on top of it all, so there isn’t a day that goes by where the slaves are working on the field and he isn’t watching them. On the one day of the week when they’re off, he can’t be without them. He goes into the slave quarters and drags them into the main house to play music and dance with them. He has a dependency on them that goes beyond economics: He has an emotional connection with them, too.
“His relationship with Solomon is more complicated. He’s threatened by Solomon, even though he can’t put his finger on it. He suspects Solomon is a much higher intellect than him, so he tries to destroy Patsey [Lupita Nyong’o], a young slave Solomon has befriended. That is Epps’ way of trying to get over his insecurities. But he only ends up intensifying it.”
Fassbender credits McQueen for populating 12 Years a Slave with characters both big and small that are all fully realized (Alfre Woodard appears in one scene as a slave who has learned to work the system to her advantage, and her performance is so strong, she merits her own movie).
“Steve has such a good understanding of the human condition,” Fassbender says. “He has great hope in it and a great fear of the reality of it. When you walk onto his set, there’s no time for b------- or hanging out or playing games. It’s time to search for the truth of how frail we are as human beings. And he never judges any of his characters, good or evil. He loved the idea that [Solomon] could retain his sense of love even after this incredible ordeal. When he is reunited with his family, the first thing he says to them is ‘Forgive me.’ That line is crushing, because you see the dignity and integrity of this man.”
Edmund Abaka, Ph.D, an associate professor of history at the University of Miami, says the release of 12 Years a Slave may be the instigator for a cultural conversation about a chapter in history that is still not yet fully explored in high-school history classes, because it is too unpleasant and ugly, and it’s too shameful to remember that this was once the face of America.
“That sentiment is still alive and well,” Abaka says. “It happened so long ago. Now we have a black president. Why should we even worry about that? Let’s get over it! But the slavery era is deeply woven into the fabric of the African-American experience. The resilience of the people who survived and resisted and forged new identities and cultures and music is extraordinary. The violence is one side of it. But another side is the complexity of the individuals. Some slaves killed themselves so they didn’t have to suffer. Some struggled through it to provide for their families. Fathers did whatever they could do to protect their children. That complexity is often lost when you focus too much on the horror and the brutality. People persevered with their lives despite these incredible challenges and, in the long run, they thrived.”
The lack of a neat resolution in 12 Years a Slave — no resounding triumph over villains — gives the film a haunting power that connects it to the present day. And out of all of the movie’s striking shots, none may be more powerful than a long, wordless take of Solomon standing in the woods, looking around and listening to the sounds of nature, the expression on his face conveying the emotional and physical toll of his experiences. And then he looks directly into the camera, addressing the viewer with an uncommon intimacy.
“Sometimes dialogue isn’t necessary,” McQueen says. “Often, you can say a lot more in one shot than you can say in seven shots. It’s a combination of the economics of filmmaking — we shot this movie in 35 days — and of thinking in visual terms. In that scene, Chiwetel expresses so much without saying a word. The hope is that you take that home with you and think about it.”