12 YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor: The Lynching and the Whipping
In one gripping sequence, Solomon is left to hang from a lynching noose with his feet barely
touching the ground. For hours he struggles just to keep from choking, while children frolic nearby in
the sun. It became one of Chiwetel Ejiofor's biggest trials in fully entering the role.
"The scene is very impactful and really about this incredible resolve that Solomon had to
survive," says Ejiofor. "He's teetering on the brink of death but he holds on. It was a real physical
strain to re-enact this with the exact detail with which Solomon described it. It was tough emotionally
and physically, but there was a feeling for me of stretching back almost 200 years and connecting to
Steve McQueen explains that he wanted to recreate the profound impression that scene left on
him in the book -- by coming at it unflinchingly. "When Solomon was hanging there on his tiptoes he
was thinking all kinds of thoughts because he was there for a long time -- and I wanted to bring that to
the audience, to let them fully experience the lynching and the way life continued going on right in
front of him," he explains. "The scene is integral to his story and I didn't want to shy away from what
really happened. It's not about shocking people; I'm not interested in that. It's about being
responsible to the story. When we shot it, there was a hush on set, a seriousness, but we all knew we
needed to get it done."
Dede Gardner was deeply moved by what she saw Ejiofor go through for that scene.
"Chiwetel was very brave. He knew how Steve intended to shoot it, and he knew that Steve wasn't
going to pull any punches. And he was up for it. He really got in the headspace for it," she explains.
The Louisiana heat alone helped to bring Ejiofor into Northup's state of mind "I think the first
day of shooting was 108, 109 degrees, and we were out in a cotton field, "he recalls. "I didn't really
understand how it was going to be possible to make a film in that kind of heat without any shade at all.
And then I realized this was exactly what Solomon had talked about, and what he went through."
Northup's battle to survive reaches its apex in his battle of wills with Edwin Epps, whose cruel
mind Ejiofor also tried to contemplate. "I think Epps has no framework for dealing with Solomon as a
human being. Yet Solomon, just in his way of being, demands acknowledgment as a human," says
Ejiofor. "It's a point of confusion for Epps. And I think that's why he tries to destroy whatever that
thing is in Solomon that is so free and alive."
Meanwhile, Northup grows ever closer to Epps' slave mistress, Patsey. "Solomon recognizes
in Patsey a very deep strength and realizes he needs some of that. He needs to have that aggressive,
desperate resolve to survive," says Ejiofor.
The resolve of both of them is severely tested when Epps forces Northup to whip Patsey for
her supposed transgressions -- in a scene that plays out in one riveting, continuous shot. Ejiofor says
that in his own mind, Patsey had her reasons for asking her friend to comply with this twisted request.
"I think Patsey's had enough of hatred and if you're going to get whipped to within an inch of your
life, she'd rather not have it come from hate. The whole scene is very symbolic of the enmeshment of
love and obsession, hatred and gentleness that went on in the plantations. It's also a moment when
Solomon realizes that even if he gets out, he'll never be the same."
Ejiofor believes that when Northup finally did make his way full circle back to home, he was a
different man inside from the one who was stolen away from his life in mid-step. "He had seen the
dark underbelly of the world," he concludes. "Yet surviving that gives him a new reality, another way
of engaging with the world."
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