Story by Terry Shropshire
Images by Mike Melendy for Steed Media Service
The star of the 12 Years a Slave juggernaut, Chiwetel Ejiofor, said he was blown away when he read the script and book of the same name. Lupita Nyong’o said she never fathomed in her wildest dreams that she could be a part of a project of this magnitude so fresh out of the Yale School of Drama. And Michael Fassbender, who plays the psychotic slave owner, said he was in tears because director Steve McQueen’s script was “incredible.”
They are far from alone in feeling baptized in a life-altering experience. Many people’s ears are still ringing today from the deafening ovation that bellowed out from the Toronto Film Festival, where 12 Years a Slave became a certified runaway sensation, and continues to reverberate across the country in a way that no movie on the topic of slavery ever has. The Oscar buzz wafting off of this film has forced American pop culture stop in its tracks and take notice.
The movie, which played in select theaters on Oct. 18 before opening to wider distribution, was directed by rapidly rising director Steve McQueen (who also directed the critically acclaimed films Hunger and Shame). The movie traces the life of Upstate New York resident Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) as a man of high education, pedigree and prestige, who was tricked and captured and summarily sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, winding up in Louisiana, where he was subjected to unspeakable inhumanity during his forced subjugation for a dozen years, thus accounting for the title of his book and the movie.
After the initial emotions of reading the script peaked and ebbed for the actors, and after the cast and crew watched film for the first time, Ejiofor and Nyong’o spoke in hushed, almost reverential tones about the intense spiritual experience that neither one of them will ever be able to erase from their memories, not that they’d ever want to.
“It was a real privilege to bring Solomon and the other people on the film, to bring them to life,” said Ejiofor. “It’s just a remarkable experience … and the greatest working experience that I’ve ever had.”
Ejiofor, 36, has been a constant presence in British theater, films and television since Steven Spielberg cast him in another slave epic, Amistad, in 1996. He starred in the indie hits Kinky Boots and Dirty Pretty Things and has worked with directors as varied as Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Ridley Scott (American Gangster), Joss Whedon (Serenity) and Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men). But it was 12 Years a Slave that catapulted the actor to the forefront of the Oscar conversation, a dizzying transformation of circumstances.
He’s not alone. Nyong’o’s eyes glisten and she talks as if she is still dazed by the experience. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be a part of this type of project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school. So it has been a gift all the way around,” she said. “It was a real privilege to be a part of history personally. I have learned so much through this process I would otherwise just not know.”