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’12 Years a Slave’ restores historic firsthand account to cultural consciousness

November 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In depicting American slavery, Hollywood has long left some of the most brutal realities largely unseen. But the filmmakers behind "12 Years a Slave" tried not to flinch in showing the full system of human subjugation. Jeffrey Brown talks to screenwriter John Ridley about the challenge of humanizing a dehumanizing institution.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: A recently released movie about the peculiar institution known as slavery in America is drawing attention and praise for an emotional and brutal portrayal largely unseen in Hollywood.

“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, is based on an 1853 autobiography of free man turned slave Solomon Northup.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation with one of the filmmakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: When we first meet Northup, he’s a well-educated carpenter and musician living with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York. The film follows as he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery, experiencing all its brutality and forced to hide his identity and education, for fear of punishment or death.

In this scene, he encounters the wife of a cruel Louisiana plantation owner.

ACTRESS: This is a list of goods and sundries. You will take it to be filled and return immediately. Take the tag. Tell Bartholomew to add it to our debt.

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CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, actor: Yes, missus.

ACTRESS: Where you from?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: I told you.

ACTRESS: Tell me again.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Washington.

ACTRESS: Who were your master?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Master name of Freeman.

ACTRESS: Was he a learned man?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: I suppose so.

ACTRESS: He learn to you read?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: A word here or there, but I have no understanding of the written text.

ACTRESS: Well, don’t trouble yourself with it. Same as the rest, master brought you here to work. That’s all. Any more will earn you a hundred lashes.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Ridley wrote the screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.” He’s also written for television, authored several novels, and directed two films of his own.

Well, welcome to you.

Tell us first about this person, Solomon Northup, and the book it is based on, and your own experience of encountering it for the first time.

JOHN RIDLEY, “12 Years a Slave”: Solomon is a truly remarkable individual.

And one of the interesting things is, after he was freed from slavery for 12 years, his story, his memoir called “12 Years a Slave” was really quite well-known here in America. It sold nearly 30,000 copies. He toured. He talked about it. Many abolitionists credit his story with helping drive their movement.

And then it really — it disappeared from the cultural consciousness. Steve McQueen and I, the director of the film, we sat down about four or five years ago and had breakfast, talked about many things. And in the course of this discussion, he stumbled upon the book. He gave it to me.

I read it and thought it was a really singular document in how evocative it was, how the clarity of how Solomon talked about his experience. And we both decided that this story in particular was worth telling and in a way that really introduced in some ways America to slavery, in the sense that it had not been excavated the way that Steve in particular wanted to do with this film and the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit more about that, because what were you — what were you after in telling the story, what kind of portrait that you felt needed to be told?

JOHN RIDLEY: I think two things.

For me, as a writer, there was an emotional honesty and emotional velocity with Solomon and his story. You have to understand, at that time, for a lot of people of color, particularly slaves, as you saw in that clip, to read and write was a death sentence. So, comparatively, there were very few first-person narratives of what it was like to live through and to survive slavery.

I think, for Steve as a filmmaker, he wanted to render these images, the beautiful ones, the difficult ones, with a level of authenticity that for a lot of people has not been seen in film or in television. For most people, their visual experiences with slavery were “Gone With the Wind,’ things like that, or “Django,” which may be an entertaining film, but went at slavery with a very — a different mind-set.

For us, again, we wanted an emotional honesty. And that’s what we tried to achieve in every step of the way in every department, with the look, with the performances, and certainly for me from the script.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned something like “Gone With the Wind.”

A lot of people have noted the — there is a long history here and a tradition of looking at the Civil War and at slavery in particular. Were you consciously working for it again in some case or against that portrayal in others?

JOHN RIDLEY: For me, it was trying to be honest to the source material.

But since the film has started to roll out — and we’re just reaching a national density at this point — one of the things that has really surprised me — and this is not for any kind of person in particular or any race of people — but I was shocked at how many people really didn’t understand how brutal the system of slavery was, how pervasive it was in its indoctrination of all individuals.

And I think that’s because, here in Hollywood, we have done a really poor job of representing the facts of slavery. So, yes, you go to big costume dramas like “Gone With the Wind’ that over the decades has really reached a point that that is folks’ reference force slavery. Slavery was not a bad day on the job. It was not your boss yelling at you. It was not hard work for little pay.

This was a full system of human subjugation. And to do that, you have to get everyone to be complicit. And, look, we’re not prisoners to the past, but when you see where we are in 2013 and why some of our views about race are so calcified, you have to understand that the indoctrination of slavery in this country for such a long time, it’s the reason we are, unfortunately, still where we are about race relations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and having seen the film, I know that you do not spare the audience. You do not spare us much of the — it’s the daily violence, the whippings, the rape that were almost routine.

I wonder, were there discussions among you and Steve McQueen and others about how far to go? I mean, you’re trying to be realistic, but you also — it’s a film that people are going to see.

JOHN RIDLEY: Yes, I think in some ways you have to compare where the language of cinema is.

We have just come out of a summer season — and I don’t say this in an overly disparaging way — but where entire cities were torn down and people just shrugged because of the level of violence and the scale of destruction and within that language of cinema.

With this film, I think it’s because you care about the people and because we take so much time to show these lives and show these individuals as humans that, on the occasion — and, really, when you break down the film, there are three or four moments that are very difficult — it means that much more because we see these individuals as people.

And we never wanted to flinch from these moments either, the beauty, the humanity, the family nature that is going on here, or things that are difficult, by the way, that aren’t very barbaric in terms of the physicality. But when you see a mother being torn away from her children and somebody’s response is, have a meal and you will forget about them, that hurts because we care.

And that was our objective at every moment, to humanize these very dehumanizing moments in the history of slavery.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last 30 seconds here, but I am wondering, given the response to it, the very positive response, do you think this signals a new openness to looking at difficult parts of our history?

JOHN RIDLEY: I think it’s an openness to looking at our history and looking at history at not just being African-American history or white American history. This is our history.

And to move forward in it, we have got to learn and we have got to grow. And I’m very gratified that people are willing to sit and learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Ridley is screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave.”

Thanks so much.

JOHN RIDLEY: Thank you for having me.