Mark your ballots now, because director Steve McQueen's powerful and unflinching 12 Years a Slave will deservedly score some Oscar gold. Beginning in 1841, the film tells the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free, well-educated black man from Saratoga Springs, NY, who's abducted and sold into slavery. (At the time, America had 13 Free States and 13 Slave States.) Northup gets traded to several slaveholders, including kindly William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Regularly whipped, humiliated, and forced to work the cotton fields of Louisiana, Northup struggles to stay alive as he searches for a means of escape.
Find out more with our five essential facts:
A 19th Century Bestseller: John Ridley's screenplay is based on Northup's 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, which was published just five months after his rescue and eight years before the start of the Civil War. The book was quite popular, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years, but fell into obscurity over the next century. Before even reading the book, McQueen (Shame) had expressed interest in doing a film about the American slave experience. He mentioned the idea to his wife, Bianca, who found Northup's memoir.
Meeting the Daunting Challenge: Ejiofor, who was born in London to Nigerian parents, was McQueen's first choice to play Northup, but the Children of Men actor was initially unsure about signing on. Though riveted by the script, Ejiofor knew the film would be physically, emotionally, and psychologically difficult. He also knew he had to be involved, so he accepted the role and threw himself into research about the antebellum South. The extreme Louisiana heat also helped him relate to Northup's suffering, as temps during the shoot soared over 100 degrees.
A Master and His Wife: Fassbender is scary and scary-good as slave owner Epps, a ruthless, drunken, slave-raping rageaholic. The real Epps had such a notorious reputation that to this day Louisiana locals admonish someone by saying, "Stop being Epps." Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) plays Epps' jealous wife, mortified by her husband's affair with his slave mistress. Paulson confesses she used her own immense attraction to Fassbender's looks and talent to portray Mrs. Epps' complicated feelings for her unfaithful spouse.
The Enslaved Mistress: Lupita Nyong'o makes her film debut as Patsey, the unfortunate object of Epps' tormented desire. The Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale graduate beat out 1,000+ actresses after auditioning in three different states. Her prep to play Patsey included reading female accounts of slavery, working with a dialect coach, and even learning to make cornhusk dolls. Nyong'o says her anxiety about working with her onscreen lover/abuser Fassbender was soon dispelled: "On camera, he's terrifying. But in real life, he's a very gentle person."
Recreating Dixie: The 35-day shoot began at a plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, next to where the real Northup spent years in bondage, and included several other historical locations. To accurately depict the era, the filmmakers did exhaustive research and studied paintings, drawings, and etchings. Patricia Norris' costumes also reflect a great level of period detail, though they proved challenging for the actors. Paulson recalls that her wardrobe — heavy corseted dresses with crinolines, petticoats, and bloomers — "couldn't have been more hot! But it also couldn't have felt more authentic."
—Reporting by Jennifer Cooper
(Originally published on Oct. 20, 2013, at 4:54 pm PT)