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

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by Vanessa Martinez
July 18, 2013 12:34 PM
8 Comments
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"12 Years a Slave." Fox Searchlight

On the heels of Tambay's Book-To-Film report yesterday, I had an opportunity to read a 2011 draft of the adapted screenplay for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, a film we’ve been eagerly anticipating and debating about for many months now. 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.

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 that 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.

Fassbender plays the ruthless Edwin Epps, 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.

The last thing you will think about when watching the film when it's released in a few months, 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 mistress, played by Lupita Nyong'o) is severely whipped, will be treated. It’s described as horrifically as you can possibly imagine.

As for the rest of the cast, Adepero Oduye, Ruth Negga, Paul Dano and Scott McNairy are all featured. Adepero plays Eliza, a slave woman whose 2 children are sold - an overwhelmingly sad, sad development in the narrative.  It’s a highly emotional role for her.

Ruth Negga plays 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, played by Kelsey Scott in the film. She’s described in the script as lighter than Solomon. How light? It doesn’t say folks. It’s a minor part, still important though.

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.

Reading the script, 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 and 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.  

So there you have it... now we wait until October 18th, when the film opens in theaters (in limited release at first).

Here's the trailer for the film adaptation, if you're one of the few who has yet to see it. Based on all I just wrote, you can make any comparisons/connections between words and images.



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8 Comments

  • Tonton Michel | August 4, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    Very curious to see how this turns out. I am hoping that people get that this is going to be a very different movie than Django and not make the comparison.

  • dancelover51 | July 18, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    You should absolutely read the book. If you don't, you do yourself a disservice in completely understanding the trials of Solomon.

    My one point of contention is the casting of Solomon's wife. Solomon described his wife as mixed and the picture he painted of her was not that of Kelsey. Also, Solomon himself was listed as mulatto in slave trading documents. However, I think they meant of some mixed ancestry and not full African so Chewi fits the description and illustrations well.

  • AccidentalVisitor | July 20, 2013 12:15 PM

    Ejiofor may look the part somewhat but I also was of the opinion he is not of mixed ancestry and is African.

  • sthn | July 18, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    Sounds like the script is palatable to CareyCarey. Hallelujah!

  • AccidentalVisitor | July 18, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    Um....perhaps I'm mistaken but I believe this is a recycling of the script review of this movie that was done last year. Perhaps that was made clear in the reposting and I happened to miss it. If so I apologize.

    And as Filmfan wrote below we now know the character Pitt plays and it is not the Northern lawyer. The trailer pretty much tells you his role.

    It is a great book by the way. I'm hearing such raves about the new audio version of it read by Louis Gossett Jr that I'm thinking about purchasing the audiobook and listening to it just before the film's release.

  • watched the film | July 18, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    I saw the film back in Feb. at a test screening. The whipping scene for me was one of the most horrifying hard to watch scenes in recent memory. They didn't hold anything back. That's the most brutal the film goes though. But it's a great scene, and if they cut the length of it, it will lose its impact.

  • BURP | July 18, 2013 7:17 PM

    Was the film any good.

  • Filmfan | July 18, 2013 12:41 PMReply

    I read the script at work and believe that Brad Pitt's character will be different.

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