We've Read It! Thoughts On Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" Script

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by Vanessa Martinez
May 29, 2012 9:05 AM
26 Comments
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I had an opportunity to read a 2011 draft Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, a film we’ve been eagerly anticipating and debating about for a several months now. Casting has been well underway. We know Chiwetel Ejiofor is slated to play Solomon Northup (excellent choice by the way) a free Black man, a distinguished fiddler player from the north, kidnapped in the mid 1800’s by two con-men, who convince Northup to come along with them to join a grand circus tour, while Northup’s wife and children are out of town.

From the script, we can first start with being glad that the film will definitely be told from Northup’s POV throughout. None of the white men are really “heroes” or glorified.  It’s brutal, unflinching, and, needless to say, poignant and obviously tragic, given the subject matter, on which the writer/director doesn’t compromise.

It’s Hunger/Shame’s McQueen all the way.

I haven’t read the original Solomon Northup narrative; I’ve read the summary though, and if you’ve read Tambay’s book-to-film write up, you can expect a pretty faithful adaptation, albeit with some brilliant creative liberties taken by McQueen; and since I’m not giving away any spoilers, all I can say is that they make the narrative all the more immersive.

In the comment section of that post, there were some concerns regarding the casting of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, given the physical appearance of the despicable characters they may portray, who are hardly described as handsome in the narratives. One of those characters - a major one in the film - is that of Edwin Epps, the evil plantation owner who enslaves Northup for the latter part of his captivity. As Tambay plainly put it, “Epps is your garden variety uneducated, ignorant, alcoholic, redneck asshole;” his character certainly fits that description in the script.

We now know, from our character details update last month, Pitt will portray a Northern lawyer who helps free Northup. That character, although at first glance may be perceived as the proverbial “white hero” role for Pitt, is of relatively minor consequence. Up until that point in the story, you'll probably be wondering where/when Solomon's white knight will ride into the frame to save him. But he never quite comes.

By the time our Nothern lawyer enters the story, Northup has already been brutalized and/or betrayed by almost every white character he comes in contact with while in bondage; and after everything he'd been through, taking place over an atrocious 12 YEARS, to say that the justice in his rescue tastes bittersweet, is an understatement.

In that casting update, we speculated that Fassbender would most likely play the ruthless Edwin Epps; he’s confirmed to portray a plantation owner, and although there are several of them in the script, Epps is the most prominent; it only makes sense that Fassbender’s rising star will be showcased here. And, to say the least, it will be extremely challenging for him, especially psychologically.

If he does play Epps, the last thing you will think about is how charming or handsome Fassbender is.  As Tambay mentioned in his write up, I really wonder how one of the latter scenes in the story, when Patsey (a young woman slave who Epps keeps as a mistres) is severely whipped, will be treated. It’s described as horrifically as you can possibly imagine.

As for the rest of the cast, we also announced earlier this month that Adepero Oduye, Ruth Negga, Paul Dano and Scott McNairy have officially joined the project. As previously discussed and pre-determined among some of us, Adepero will most likely play Patsey. BUT, she could also play Eliza, a slave woman whose 2 children are sold - an overwhelmingly sad, sad development in the narrative.  It’s a highly emotional role for whomever is chosen to play it; I kept picturing actresses like Kimberly Elise or Anika Noni Rose as Eliza, but I'm no casting director.

We know British actress Ruth Negga will play a runaway slave. That character, a woman who encounters Northup while hiding in the woods, is described in the script as having very fair skin, with barely recognizable African features; so her casting makes sense.

The role left to cast is that of Solomon’s wife, Anne. She’s described in the script as lighter than Solomon. How light? It doesn’t say folks; I imagine, noticeably, perhaps. It’s a minor part, still important though. I could see someone like Tessa Thompson, or even Nicole Beharie in the role (I know, I know; she doesn’t really fit the lighter description). It looks like the role is still up for grabs; with shooting commencing next month, we should find out any day now.

There’s still another even less prominent role; it’s that of a Black slave woman - a very compelling, and even risqué part. And no, it has nothing to do with a white man; but I just can’t give you any more than that, without spoiling the film.

And speaking of Black slave women and White masters, and the sexual exploitation of the former, the script is devoid of any gratuitous sexual violence. Besides a brief scene were Epps sexually assaults a reluctant, non-responsive Patsey, the script is devoid of rape or seemingly consensual sex.

In spite of comparisons, as you may have guessed, 12 Years A Slave is nothing like what we know of Django Unchained so far. And if you’re wondering how it compares to the American Playhouse 1984 TV movie, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, well, it’s hardly anything like it. McQueen’s script is filled with uncompromising realism of a history some of us would rather not revisit.

You’re transported back in time, and you understand why Solomon makes the choices he makes; the script accomplishes this in order to give Solomon’s character a great balance between being subordinate in order to survive, yet rebellious and defiant in a passive aggressive way. And although Solomon is a seemingly non-emotive character, his survival strategy, his pain and inner turmoil are deeply understood amd felt.

The narrative in McQueen’s script took me on a journey of  terror, heart-wrench, despair, and anger, but also of  courage, strength, heartbreak, love, and ultimately, as cliché as it may sound, gave me a real appreciation for life and what we call freedom.  

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26 Comments

  • Carl Shaw | January 29, 2014 10:10 AMReply

    EVERYONE should see 12 Years, so full of emotion that not many will be able to see it twice.

  • Rosie | July 30, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    ["The 1984 TV movie was a farce, that presented the brutal sexual exploitation of black women as a romantic interracial love story. "]


    You are a liar! Or else you're suffering from a bad memory. There was no interracial "love story" in the 1984 movie. The slave portrayed by Rhetta Greene, was forced to be Epps' mistress, despite her feelings for Solomon. The relationship between her, Solomon, Epps and Mrs. Epps proved to be complicated and damaging. Read the damn movie again and get it right for once.

  • Rosie | July 30, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    ["None of the white men are really “heroes” or glorified."]


    I didn't realize that was so important.

  • AyannaCosta | October 18, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    @RoseMarie I could not have said it better myself.

  • ROSEMARIE | July 9, 2012 6:15 AMReply

    Of course I'll be seeing this (I'm a big Ruth Negga fan), but something in me really casts a wary eye on films of this nature. I don't doubt McQueen's work, I actually love both Hunger and Shame, but I feel like Black film's gotten stuck in this Tyler Perry-esque quagmire, where there's safety in securing roles in films by playing or portraying the stencil, stylized "downtrodden Black" character.

    For once, I'd really like to see Black filmmakers and actors/actresses explore what I believe to presently be the biggest challenge for Black people (regardless of ethnicity/nationality) in film: portraying 3-dimensional characters that have significant objectives, thoughts, and plights that aren't necessarily motivated by being African-descent or being spokespeople for ALL Black people.

    It'd be way more realistic to portray African-ness (?) not as a ball-and-chain, a weight that Blacks have to endure, but something that simply "exists" for people in the same light economic status, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. just does. Kudos to McQueen if he can subvert all these stereotypes (it kind of annoyed me even about Fassbender's character's linear description as just being white trash or whatever) to the point where I don't sympathize or fault any characters and I just see individuals.

  • ArthurHammer | June 14, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    Seriously can't wait! Loving the McQueen and Fassbender team up.

  • Holly | June 11, 2012 3:59 PMReply

    Vanessa, thanks for the review. How much screen time will the role of William Ford have. Does the script fast forward through his involvement.

  • eshowoman | June 2, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    This article makes me even more enthusiastic about this film. I have almost no desire to see Django Unchained, which by all accounts makes slavery into black/white buddy film with laced with black female sexploitation. No thanks. Slavery was not a fun action adventure romp and Northrop's self authored slave narrative is one of the few documents about the institution that was not watered down by white abolitionists.
    I am glad this film will be faithful to the actual slave narrative. The 1984 TV movie was a farce, that presented the brutal sexual exploitation of black women as a romantic interracial love story. I am glad that McQueen is directing the film, he is invested in presenting a real representation of the peculiar institution and not playing down the savagery so that the predominantly white audience can walk out the theatre without their feelings hurt.

  • Donella | June 4, 2012 2:20 PM

    I also trust that the director of Shame and Hunger won't exploit the horror of slavery as a fun adventure. The fact that McQueen's bringing life to the document of someone who managed to survive enslavement and find his way home makes me very interested in 12 Years a Slave.

  • Deion | June 1, 2012 9:54 AMReply

    This sounds like a monotonous litany of suffering and degradation unenlivened by any adventure, personality, or narrative exuberance. The Passion of the Christ meets Hunger meets that depressing Martin Lawrence/Eddie Murphy film "Life". How do you dramatize 12 years of one man's horrible treatment in an engaging manner? I'll stick with Tarantino's film.

  • Marmotte | June 1, 2012 4:00 AMReply

    Ruth Negga is Irish but now resides in London. Great actress!

  • tribblesinthedark | May 31, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    Can you specify other characters that have not been cast yet?

  • Tony | May 31, 2012 6:02 AMReply

    I'd like to see a film about John Casor, who was the first man to be a slave for life in the U.S.A. His owner, oddly enough, was a black man named Anthony Johnson. That would blow people's minds.

  • eshowman | June 2, 2012 8:42 PM

    The few blacks that owned slaves often owned family members that they struggled to buy. They could not set them free because their family member because southern states required them to leave the state unless they could find a sympathetic white man to sponsor the state senate to allow them to stay.

  • Kia | May 30, 2012 10:32 AMReply

    Very insightful Vanessa. I was wondering how this script would play out and from your review, I'd be interested in reading the book. I'll go check out Tambay's review next :).

  • Dankwa Brooks | May 30, 2012 8:55 AMReply

    Great script review Vanessa! Very intriguing description without revealing spoilers.

  • Vanessa | May 30, 2012 7:29 AMReply

    @Roxie - the rape of Black slave women is not avoided or downplayed whatsoever. There's just not a graphic rape scene but a very uncomfortable one, which is not sexually provocative or gratuitous in the least but very poignant. Overall, it's more implicit in the narrative. Patsey's physical abuse stems from this coersive sexual relationship with Epps. Epps wife takes her jealous rage upon her and Epps is extremely controlling and abusive towards her, hence the horrific whipping scene towards the end.

  • Dankwa Brooks | May 30, 2012 8:53 AM

    I think we must all remember this is also a motion picture and is meant to entertain as well as inform on some level. Brutal depictions of rape while may have been true are hardly fodder for a motion picture. I thought 'Precious' was an amazing motion picture and that's why I bought the BluRay, but I have yet to rewatch it. That is not the type of picture you watch over and over.

  • AccidentalVisitor | May 29, 2012 8:08 PMReply

    Thanks for the review, Vanessa (where do you guys get your hands on these scripts anyway?). One question...are there any other prominent or supporting roles for black male characters other than Solomon or is he supposed to be the only male slave in the South?

  • johnnie | May 29, 2012 6:06 PMReply

    That is... the issue of SLAVERY....I hats how kindle inserts words!!!!! Also..the story in NEAR AND DEAR...FINAALY (SORRY) OUR Celebration of Freedom is held every year in Saratoga Springs at our Heritage Area Visitor Center.

  • johnnie | May 29, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    This is such an important film. To date the issue of sleety had not been handled well in film. The story is nest and dear to me as I am from Saratoga, the place from which Solomon was lured! I have worked hard to make sure that Solomon Northup Day, a Celebration of Freedom, founded by local resident, Renee Moore has been upheld for the
    part 13 years at our

  • Roxe | May 29, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    Great review....sounds intriguing, but one question: how could the script be "filled with uncompromising realism of a history some of us would rather not revisit" if there is no sexual violence toward Black women? Your comment ("Besides a brief scene were Epps sexually assaults a reluctant, non-responsive Patsey, the script is devoid of rape or seemingly consensual sex.") almost sounds like you're downplaying the sexual assault as a non-event. Which is bizarre to say the least, but again prompts me to ask how this very real, extremely pertinent (hence all the different complexions) aspect of slavery is not present --- yet this script is considered to be accurate. This smacks of minimizing Black women's trauma in deference to that of Black men. Once again. Sigh. The reality is, we *all* suffered; there should not be an 'either/or' in depicting it. As an African American woman, who was very much looking forward to seeing this film, I have to say that if the sexual violence and coercion that Black women suffered during slavery was conveniently airbrushed and soft-focused, that SUCKS. I guess the proof will be in the pudding.

  • Micah | May 29, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    There is no other movie coming out that I am more excited about. With an amazing director, cast and source material, I'm sure it won't disappoint.

  • Donella | May 29, 2012 1:27 PMReply

    Great review Vanessa! I'm looking forward to this movie more and more. I do believe Fassbender is up to playing a villain. While Magneto in X-Men hardly compares, he handled the dark slide into the dark side well. Thanks for the update.

  • Peggy | May 29, 2012 10:01 AMReply

    This sounds like the real deal. I can't wait to see it. We need a gritty, realistic approach to this subject with the black character as the focus of the movie. (and I love Fassbender)

  • JackieBlack | July 9, 2012 2:15 PM

    thanks for the review. Since this has come out, we know that Lupita Nyong'o is cast as Patsey. A beautiful, young actress fresh out of Yale. Sarah Paulson is playing Mistress Epps. Garret Dillahunt is playing Armsby, and Paul Giamatti is Freeman. A great cast in capable hands.

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