An Essentially American Narrative

Amid comic book epics, bromantic comedies and sequels of sequels, films about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple. In the last two years, “The Help,” “Lincoln,”“Django Unchained,”“42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” have performed well at the box office, gathering awards in some cases and drawing varying degrees of critical acclaim.

The latest entry in this unlikely genre is “12 Years a Slave,” the director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. A free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y., Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into brutal servitude in the Deep South. During his ordeal, he labors at different plantations, including the one owned by the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a tortured sexual relationship with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Following a buzzed-about preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters Friday amid much online chatter that it may be headed for Oscar nominations. But Mr. Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, and Mr. McQueen, known for the bracingly austere “Hunger” and “Shame,” both say that getting audiences to see an uncompromisingly violent and quietly meditative film about America’s “peculiar institution” is still a challenge even with the presence of a producer, Brad Pitt, in a small role.

While the material was developed by Americans (including the screenwriter John Ridley) the director and most of the major cast members are British, a topic of concern among some early black commentators.

On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the “12 Years a Slave” production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”
Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”

Q. I wanted to start with contemporary analogues. One thing that came to mind was stop and frisk, a way the New York City police could stop a black or Latino male. I thought of Solomon as a character who, for a lot of contemporary audiences, would be that young black person. [To Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ejiofor] When you were seeking a way into the slave story, was what happens now part of that?

Steve McQueen Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.

What do you mean?

McQueen The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever.

Chiwetel, how did you balance what’s going on in the world with [Northup’s] reality?

Chiwetel Ejiofor That wasn’t the approach for me. I was trying to tell the story of Solomon Northup as he experienced his life. He didn’t know where all this was going. My journey started finishing a film in Nigeria. The last day, I went to the slave museum in Calabar, which was four or five rooms and some books, some interesting drawings of what they thought happened to people when the boats took them over. I left the following day and came to Louisiana. In my own way, I traveled that route.

Professor, your reaction to the film, its place in the contemporary discussion about slavery.

Eric Foner I believe this is a piece of history that everybody — black, white, Asian, everybody — has to know. You cannot understand the United States without knowing about the history of slavery. Having said that, I don’t think we should go too far in drawing parallels to the present. Slavery was a horrific institution, and it is not the same thing as stop and frisk. In a way, putting it back to slavery takes the burden off the present. The guys who are acting in ways that lead to inequality today are not like the plantation owner. They’re guys in three-piece suits. They’re bankers who are pushing African-Americans into subprime mortgages.

Sarah Paulson, left, and Lupita Nyong’oin in a scene from “12 Years a Slave.”
Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sarah Paulson, left, and Lupita Nyong’oin in a scene from “12 Years a Slave.”

Kara, what are your thoughts on this?

Kara Walker There’s a uniquely American exuberance for violence or an exuberance for getting ahead in the world and making a name for themselves. I’m talking about the sort of plantation class that fought for the entrenchment of the slave system. That’s not something that can be overlooked when you think about the mythology of what it means to be an American, that one can become a self-made man if one is white and male and able.

Foner One of the things I liked about the movie and the way it portrayed violence, it’s pretty hard to take sometimes. But what it really highlights is the capriciousness of it. The owners, at one moment they’re trying to be pleasant, and the next moment they’re whipping you. You’re always kind of on this edge of not knowing. In fact slavery is like that at large. You don’t know when you’re going to be sold away from your family. People like to have some kind of stability in their life, but you can’t as a slave.

Servitude and Sexuality

There’s a lot of things to say about sex in the film, but one of the things that is going to leap out is Alfre Woodard’s character [Mistress Shaw, described in the book as the black wife of a white plantation owner].

McQueen In the book, she doesn’t say anything. I had a conversation with John Ridley, and I said: “Look, we need a scene with this woman. I want her to have tea.” It was very simple. Give her a voice.

Walker It’s not that it was that uncommon. That planter would be sort of the crazy one, the eccentric one, and she’s getting by.

From left, Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

From left, Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen.

Ejiofor It was against the law to marry, but it did happen.

Foner There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners.

Walker I was going to ask a question about a black woman who appears, a mysterious woman Solomon has sex with. She has sex with him, rather. I thought she was going to be a character in the film, and then she wasn’t.

McQueen Slaves are working all day. Their lives are owned, but those moments, they have to themselves. I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.

Solomon has a wife beforehand. In the film it seems as if he lived with Eliza [a fellow slave]. Then obviously [he has] some kind of relationship with Patsey, a friendship. But I wondered about Solomon’s own sexual expression.

Ejiofor His sexuality felt slightly more of a tangent. I think the real story is where sex is in terms of power.

Foner Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book.

Walker But in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [by Harriet Ann Jacobs] and other slave narratives written by women, that’s always kind of the subtext, because there are children that are produced, relationships that are formed or allegiances that are formed with white men in order to have freedom.

Foner Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people.

Walker Yes, but it’s always the subtext. Even “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s like, there’s little mulatto children, and that’s the evidence.

From left, Michael Fassbender as a plantation owner in the film, and Mr. Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped in 1841 and confined to brutal servitude in the Deep South.
Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures

From left, Michael Fassbender as a plantation owner in the film, and Mr. Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped in 1841 and confined to brutal servitude in the Deep South.

Unlike most American directors, you’re not cutting all over the place. You put the camera there, and you let us experience the moment that is part of the lore of America, the slave master raping the black female slave [Patsey].

McQueen I didn’t want people to get out of it. Within that you see his actual love for her in a way. Obviously, the love isn’t given back to him, and it’s a horrendous rape.

Walker Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don’t need to see that scene over and over again.

McQueen I have huge sympathy for Epps, though. He’s in love with this woman and he doesn’t understand it. Why is he in love with this slave? He goes about trying to destroy his love for her by destroying her. The madness starts.

From left, Mr. Ejiofor; Mr. McQueen; the writer Nelson George; the artist Kara Walker; and the historian Eric Foner discuss the film.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

From left, Mr. Ejiofor; Mr. McQueen; the writer Nelson George; the artist Kara Walker; and the historian Eric Foner discuss the film.

A View From Abroad

One of the things that has come up in early response to the film is a question from some black folks in America about the perspective, the fact that you are both foreigners, as it were.

Walker It will never be right for the black folks in America, I’m sorry. You can say it’s a historical document ——

McQueen Can I jump in there, please? I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora.

Ejiofor When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story.

McQueen The only thing you can say about it is: Why was this book lost in America?

Foner Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives.

Mr. Ejiofor, left, faces Paul Giamatti in “12 Years of Slave.”
Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mr. Ejiofor, left, faces Paul Giamatti in “12 Years of Slave.”

The Past in Hollywood’s Lens

Foner [To McQueen] I think it’s good that you are not a Hollywood director. Most Hollywood history is self-important in a way that this movie is not.

Walker The audience is intelligent. They could actually stand in Solomon’s shoes and go through the adventure together instead of the kind of voice-over Hollywood black Americana thing. That’s what I’m talking about with ownership. Over the years, you have this kind of heavy-handed style of narration. Cicely Tyson comes out with the makeup on and tells her story in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Can I bring up those heavy-handed Hollywood movies, since we’re on that topic? “Lincoln” as well as, obviously, “Django.” It seems like in the last few years, there have been black historical dramas that have been made out of Hollywood. We can throw in “The Help,” “The Butler.” There’s one theory that this is all a reaction to Obama’s presidency.

Ejiofor There’s probably not one cause. I’d say that’s true for a couple of those movies. Obama gets elected. People think we haven’t done the Jackie Robinson story yet. And some of these stories are great stories. The received idea has been it doesn’t sell well. But you have a couple of movies do incredibly good business.

Walker But Obama also wrote his autobiography. I think that might be a part of it, not just that there’s a person in power, but that he’s a best-selling author, getting large portions of America — black, white and other — to become a part of his story.

Foner The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass.

Ejiofor But that’s movies as well.

Walker I was going to disagree a little bit. I didn’t find him particularly heroic, in that Frederick Douglass sense. He’s a little bit more compromised by more than just slavery. There’s this past, what he does or doesn’t do for Patsey. All of that makes him a much more complicated figure in a way.

McQueen I don’t think we should underplay Obama’s presidency and the effect of these films coming to fruition. The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?

The Historical Moment

[To the filmmakers] There’s a lot of talk about awards for the film. Is that relevant to you?

Ejiofor I’m always nervous when people start talking about hype and heat. It’s a story about a man who went through something remarkable. I feel like that still deserves its own reflection.

McQueen I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.

[To Walker and Foner] What are your feelings about the impact it will have on people?

Walker I’m a sponge for historical images of black people and black history on film. It doesn’t happen often enough, and it doesn’t happen artfully enough most of the time when it does happen. I came away with this really kind of awful sense that I didn’t want to leave. The texture of the film made me want to stay in this space that would not be hospitable to me. Thinking also about who would see the film, I think about my parents, in Georgia. I think about the theater where they will see the film. People will go to the mall to see one of those Tyler Perry films and action films. Would this film make it there, and if it did, would it translate? My hope was that this film would reach that audience down there and have that sort of complicated space open up for them that wasn’t just an easy laugh or an easy cry.

Foner I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave.

McQueen I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward.