Rave reviews for Slave role
ACTOR Chiwetel Ejiofor has blown away all and sundry with his performance in the much- lauded 12 Years a Slave, a film based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841.
Northup’s book, a bestseller upon its publication in 1853, faded into obscurity, only to reappear at various times throughout the 20th century ( apparently, the 1930s and the 1960s saw a resurgence in its popularity) but, for the most part, disappeared from public consciousness.
Now, acclaimed British director Steve McQueen ( Hunger, Shame) has brought it to the screen after his girlfriend discovered the novel in a second- hand bookstore.
Ejiofor’s performance in the film is so good it’s earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
As such, he’s now a freshly minted movie star, which is quickly apparent because he has four over- eager publicists present during our interview, just in case I say the wrong thing.
Ejiofor swats away any notion that he’ll be taking home the little gold man come Oscar night.
“For me, it’s still a point of reflection about what Solomon went through,” he says.
“You feel you have a fraction of an insight into what may have occurred,” he says.
There was an even more personal aspect to the film for the actor. His own Nigerian ancestors, the Ebos, lost hundreds of thousands to slavery ( Nigeria was a main shipping point for the slave trade) and he felt a duty to represent those who “have gone through an experience that is hard to imagine and been sort of left in the annals of history. We had the privilege and the responsibility of bringing those people back and telling their story”.
But ask him whether he thinks the film will open up a discussion on race, particularly in America, and he bristles.
“Well, I’m always concerned about the term discussion,” Ejiofor says.
“People talk about these discussions and conversations – I think it’s action, that’s all. Either you believe in human respect or you don’t. And if you do believe in it, then you act accordingly when you meet people and they can be different races, sexes, genders, religions, and you afford them human dignity before anything else. Either you do it or you don’t do it.” 12 YEARS A SLAVE Now showing at the State and Village cinemas
“I feel it has very little to do with me. I’m blown away by the reaction, but I feel it’s for him.”
Initially, the 36- year- old Londoner says he wavered on whether or not to take the role.
“I first was very intimidated and racked with self- doubt,” he says.
“I’ve never seen a film like that, from inside the slave experience. It took a moment to get on board.”
Indeed, most of the major studios also passed on the project until Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, stepped in.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make this film without Brad,” Ejiofor says of Pitt, who also briefly appears in the film.
“Obviously, he’s, you know, Brad Pitt, this extraordinary kind of movie star, but he’s also a film fan and he supports actors and he supports filmmakers.”
The film is difficult viewing. McQueen depicts the indignity and the physical and emotional brutality of slavery in a manner that has rarely, if ever, been seen on screen ( in the screening I attended, several people left in tears midway through).
Of some of the more brutal scenes, Ejiofor says he and the other actors were essentially “down the rabbit hole”, adding any discomfort the cast felt while shooting was irrelevant.