12 Years a Slave premiered at Telluride and was crowned the presumptive Oscar frontrunner in Toronto, but its screening at the New York Film Festival last night was a special sort of homecoming. The movie, based on an 1853 memoir, tells the story of a free black New Yorker from Saratoga named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped and trafficked into Southern slavery, and some of Northup’s descendants came to Manhattan from upstate to view the film with the Lincoln Center audience.
Since Toronto, director Steve McQueen’s movie has been celebrated as “slavery’s Schindler’s List,” the most unflinching and intimate study of our country’s most shameful sin. While Roots was a huge cultural television event in the 1970s and Quentin Tarantino had his own stylistic take on slavery in Django Unchained, few Hollywood films had put slavery under the microscope. “It’s obviously a very difficult historical moment that happened in America – hugely shameful, hugely painful,” McQueen said after the screening. “Previously [in Hollywood], obviously it was very very difficult and it was stuck somehow. But with the situation of Trayvon Martin, with having the first black president, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s created this kind of perfect storm where there’s a thirst to sort of reconnect with that past, to see where one’s going, and to see where one’s at.”
Though audiences now have been prepped by the early reviews for 12 Years’ unflinching truth and brutality, Solomon’s story still packed a wallop in New York. Michael Fassbender, who plays Solomon’s sadistic owner Edwin Epps, felt its weight the first time he saw the film in Telluride. “It was really pretty hard-core,” he said before the screening. “We did a Q and A after watching the movie and I found it really difficult. It took me about two hours to actually reengage with people and have a proper conversation. It’s just one of those films that requires a lot in terms of reflection at the end of it.”
Alfre Woodard, who plays a slave who’s attained a certain social status, describes it as “a very communal and cathartic experience: an entire audience is sort of grieving and gasping and sighing and releasing as one.”
Watching the events unfold onscreen is one thing; living them out – as an actor – was an entirely different experience. Especially for Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, a beautiful slave who draws the lecherous attention of her master, Epps, and the subsequent ire of the master’s wife (Sarah Paulson). “Playing Patsey was a painful experience and every day I tried to leave her on set,” said Nyong’o. “I definitely had rituals that I did before I had begun to work on the day and at the end of the day but I wasn’t always very successful. But even if it was a place of deep grief for me, I was honored to do it because I was bringing to life a woman who actually existed and actually went through this. That always was a humbling thing to remember.”
Paulson had the challenge of playing a character who inflicted such cruelty, and she admitted it wasn’t always easy. “But it was very important to Steve that none of us judge our characters and that we do our best to figure out what was underneath all of the behavior and the seemingly vicious acts. No monster thinks they’re a monster. So I took my cues from him.”
Fassbender, who’d previously worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame, in which he played a sex addict, understood the process and seemingly was at peace with it. “I had no problems going to places that I had to go to because it was an honor to be a large part of telling Solomon’s story, to tell the truth,” said Fassbender, who admitted he was drawn to playing the film’s most vile and debased character. “Steve told me when we were doing the press junkets for Shame that this was the next topic he was going to broach and he sent me a script several months later. I read it, called him up immediately, and I was like, ‘Dude, I love it. I want to be part of this.’ But I wanted to play Edwin. That was the role that I really wanted to play. He offered that to me, I was like, ‘Thank you.’”
Like many Americans, McQueen – a Brit who now lives in Amsterdam – had never heard of Northrup before he began researching the story that would become his movie, and he hopes that his film will elevate the book’s profile. “When I read that book for the first time, it was like the first time I read Anne Frank’s diary,” he said. “And I wondered to myself, ‘Why isn’t this book on everyone’s bookshelf.’ No one knew 12 Years a Slave. No one knew who this person was. Why hadn’t I heard of him? For me, it’s a classic. It should be in every school.”