USA TODAY - Hollywood is giving a history lesson on an unsung abolitionist hero.
Twelve Years a Slave, slated for a fall release, is director Steve McQueen's adaptation of the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, an African-American who was born a free man but was tricked, captured and sold into slavery. He wound up working for 12 years on Louisiana plantations.
The British filmmaker is well-versed in American history, but he found Northup's story to be completely obscure. "It was the Anne Frank story of America of that time,'' says McQueen. "It's the situation and the detail of Solomon's recollection of those events that ingrained itself in my brain, and the humanity of everyone involved."
One of the things that stood out when McQueen read the book was how much of a gentleman Northup was, even under extreme circumstances. That's why he tapped English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots, American Gangster) to bring the figure to life.
"He's like a Sidney Poitier or even Harry Belafonte," McQueen says. "There's a certain kind of class and dignity about him. He brings that with him wherever he goes."
The movie is a historical tale but also very much a straightforward and humbling journey for the audience, Ejiofor says. "He goes through an extraordinary ordeal, a very painful, brutal experience, and found a kind of redemption on the other side of it."
Northup actually struck up an "extraordinary friendship" with his first owner, Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), says Ejiofor. But most of his 12 years was spent under the watch of the cruel planter Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who posed an incredible physical and mental challenge to Solomon.
"Edwin Epps was able to create a very oppressive circumstance with great ease, almost flippantly'' says Ejiofor. "It's a very dramatic relationship and interesting dynamic they have as Solomon is attempting to survive it. Epps is not some Machiavellian character - he just has a mindset and a personality that allowed him to behave in a certain way to the people he owns."
McQueen, who cast Fassbender in his dramas Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), says the actor has an intensity to his performance "that no one's ever seen before, and that's saying something."
Recent best-actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Solomon's young daughter, and the cast also includes her Beasts of the Southern Wildco-star Dwight Henry,The Wire's Michael K. Williams, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard.
The film also features newcomer Lupita Nyong'o - "a star is born," McQueen says of his discovery. A recent Yale drama grad, Nyong'o plays Patsey, a slave whom Solomon befriends on the plantation and who has a volatile relationship with Epps, much to dismay of Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson).
Brad Pitt has a small role as a Canadian carpenter who is integral to Solomon's eventual freedom, but he played a much larger part as a producer and A-list force behind the scenes.
"Without Brad, this film wouldn't have been made. Fact," McQueen says. "Just his presence sometimes could lift everyone's mood. It's like having a great ballplayer on a team. He doesn't have to play a big role, but his presence can lift everyone's game."
McQueen and Ejiofor appreciate that Twelve Years a Slave will be many moviegoers' introduction to an important figure along the lines of a Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.
"His story is not something that's been mythologized or idealized. It's raw and it's right there and it's a real connection," Ejiofor says.
"You can look at this film and be of any ethnic grouping and identify with Solomon," McQueen adds. "He has been taken away into circumstances that are horrific and not pleasant. All he wants is to get back to his family."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)