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When I spoke with Chiwetel Ejiofor on October 12, 2013, it was hard to know where to start talking about 12 YEARS A SLAVE in which he stars as Solomon Northup. It’s based on Northup’s memoir, which told in stark and painful detail the shocking true story of how Northup, a musician and free man of color with a wife and two children who lived in New York in the first half of the 19th century, was sold into slavery, where he languished for over a decade. Against all odds, Northup was restored to his wife, family, and freedom whereupon he wrote his story that became, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best seller of the ante-bellum United States. It eventually fell out of print before being rediscovered by Louisiana historians, Dr. Sue Eakin and Dr. Joseph Logsdon, who produced an annotated edition in 1968.
Ejiofor, whose work includes KINKY BOOTS, CHILDREN OF MEN, 2012, and DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, as well television’s Dancing on the Edge, spoke movingly of preparing for his role by familiarizing himself with the chains that would be used to bind his character, chains that were not props, but actual antiques that had been used on slaves in Louisiana, where the story takes place. He also discussed the limited use of physical violence in a very violent story, the reception the film has gotten, what is was like to speak Northup’s actual words, and the complicated relationships he discovered went on between master and slave in Northup’s experience.
The film, sure to be nominated for every award out there, co-stars Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano. It was directed by Steve McQueen from a script based on Northup’s memoir by John Ridley.