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‘12 Years a Slave’ triumphs at Toronto Film Fest

LOREN KING | 10/3/2013, 12:47 p.m.
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey and Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw in “12 Years a Slave”

Ejiofor said that just before shooting “12 Years a Slave,” he was in the Calabar region of southeast Nigeria making “Half a Yellow Sun,” which also played at TIFF. “Just before flying to New Orleans, I visited the slave museum, from where many slaves were taken and sent to New Orleans. So I took that same journey, and I was aware that this is a story about a diaspora as well as an individual,” he says. “Then I traveled to plantations to get a sense of the overall history and read different slave narratives, which was a compelling experience. And working with such an exceptional group of people makes the job so much easier.”

Woodard said that her character, a slave who “marries” her master and thus becomes a plantation mistress, “shows the complexity of slavery.”

“It was an economy for 300 years. She lived in a separate universe, right in the middle of everything,” Woodard said of the character.

One of the breakout performances in the film belongs to Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a young slave, Patsey, who is repeatedly raped by Epps, who then inflicts vicious beatings on her.

Nyong’o is a Kenyan actress and graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and McQueen cast her after seeing hundreds of auditions. Nyong’o said the actors bonded offscreen, which enabled them to trust each other.

“Michael and I made nice before we did our scenes, and I trusted him as a scene partner in order to be able to go there,” she said. “The first thing I did to prepare was visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore to get a 3-D experience. I read other slave narratives such as ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.’ But mainly, it was how Solomon described Patsey as having ‘an air of loftiness.’ I understood she could be genial and pleasant and still want to die. That complexity is something, as an actor, you can only dream of.”

McQueen shrugs off accolades and talk of awards, saying he only wants Northup’s book to return to the bestseller list, where it was after Northup first wrote it. “I was surprised that no one knew this book. It’s a genius book,” McQueen said. “Scholars knew about it, but it’s not a classic like ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ I want to get this book into every school in America; that was always my aim.”