I had an opportunity to read a 2011 draft Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, a film we’ve been eagerly anticipating and debating about for a several months now. Casting has been well underway. We know Chiwetel Ejiofor is slated to play Solomon Northup (excellent choice by the way) a free Black man, a distinguished fiddler player from the north, kidnapped in the mid 1800’s by two con-men, who convince Northup to come along with them to join a grand circus tour, while Northup’s wife and children are out of town.
From the script, we can first start with being glad that the film will definitely be told from Northup’s POV throughout. None of the white men are really “heroes” or glorified. It’s brutal, unflinching, and, needless to say, poignant and obviously tragic, given the subject matter, on which the writer/director doesn’t compromise.
It’s Hunger/Shame’s McQueen all the way.
I haven’t read the original Solomon Northup narrative; I’ve read the summary though, and if you’ve read Tambay’s book-to-film write up, you can expect a pretty faithful adaptation, albeit with some brilliant creative liberties taken by McQueen; and since I’m not giving away any spoilers, all I can say is that they make the narrative all the more immersive.
In the comment section of that post, there were some concerns regarding the casting of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, given the physical appearance of the despicable characters they may portray, who are hardly described as handsome in the narratives. One of those characters – a major one in the film – is that of Edwin Epps, the evil plantation owner who enslaves Northup for the latter part of his captivity. As Tambay plainly put it, “Epps is your garden variety uneducated, ignorant, alcoholic, redneck asshole;” his character certainly fits that description in the script.
We now know, from our character details update last month, Pitt will portray a Northern lawyer who helps free Northup. That character, although at first glance may be perceived as the proverbial “white hero” role for Pitt, is of relatively minor consequence. Up until that point in the story, you'll probably be wondering where/when Solomon's white knight will ride into the frame to save him. But he never quite comes.
By the time our Nothern lawyer enters the story, Northup has already been brutalized and/or betrayed by almost every white character he comes in contact with while in bondage; and after everything he'd been through, taking place over an atrocious 12 YEARS, to say that the justice in his rescue tastes bittersweet, is an understatement.
In that casting update, we speculated that Fassbender would most likely play the ruthless Edwin Epps; he’s confirmed to portray a plantation owner, and although there are several of them in the script, Epps is the most prominent; it only makes sense that Fassbender’s rising star will be showcased here. And, to say the least, it will be extremely challenging for him, especially psychologically.
If he does play Epps, the last thing you will think about is how charming or handsome Fassbender is. As Tambay mentioned in his write up, I really wonder how one of the latter scenes in the story, when Patsey (a young woman slave who Epps keeps as a mistres) is severely whipped, will be treated. It’s described as horrifically as you can possibly imagine.
As for the rest of the cast, we also announced earlier this month that Adepero Oduye, Ruth Negga, Paul Dano and Scott McNairy have officially joined the project. As previously discussed and pre-determined among some of us, Adepero will most likely play Patsey. BUT, she could also play Eliza, a slave woman whose 2 children are sold – an overwhelmingly sad, sad development in the narrative. It’s a highly emotional role for whomever is chosen to play it; I kept picturing actresses like Kimberly Elise or Anika Noni Rose as Eliza, but I'm no casting director.
We know British actress Ruth Negga will play a runaway slave. That character, a woman who encounters Northup while hiding in the woods, is described in the script as having very fair skin, with barely recognizable African features; so her casting makes sense.
The role left to cast is that of Solomon’s wife, Anne. She’s described in the script as lighter than Solomon. How light? It doesn’t say folks; I imagine, noticeably, perhaps. It’s a minor part, still important though. I could see someone like Tessa Thompson, or even Nicole Beharie in the role (I know, I know; she doesn’t really fit the lighter description). It looks like the role is still up for grabs; with shooting commencing next month, we should find out any day now.
There’s still another even less prominent role; it’s that of a Black slave woman – a very compelling, and even risqué part. And no, it has nothing to do with a white man; but I just can’t give you any more than that, without spoiling the film.
And speaking of Black slave women and White masters, and the sexual exploitation of the former, the script is devoid of any gratuitous sexual violence. Besides a brief scene were Epps sexually assaults a reluctant, non-responsive Patsey, the script is devoid of rape or seemingly consensual sex.
In spite of comparisons, as you may have guessed, 12 Years A Slave is nothing like what we know of Django Unchained so far. And if you’re wondering how it compares to the American Playhouse 1984 TV movie, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, well, it’s hardly anything like it. McQueen’s script is filled with uncompromising realism of a history some of us would rather not revisit.
You’re transported back in time, and you understand why Solomon makes the choices he makes; the script accomplishes this in order to give Solomon’s character a great balance between being subordinate in order to survive, yet rebellious and defiant in a passive aggressive way. And although Solomon is a seemingly non-emotive character, his survival strategy, his pain and inner turmoil are deeply understood amd felt.
The narrative in McQueen’s script took me on a journey of terror, heart-wrench, despair, and anger, but also of courage, strength, heartbreak, love, and ultimately, as cliché as it may sound, gave me a real appreciation for life and what we call freedom.