Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard star in "12 Years a Slave."
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TORONTO -- Actors inherently trust each other -- they have to, especially if they must pretend to chain, whip, enslave and debase each other.
"Actors take care of each other. We immediately trust. That's why we're always hugging and touching and kissing," says Alfre Woodard, who has a small but memorable role in "12 Years a Slave."
"It's like going to sea. You're out to sea with them in a boat and you have to take care of each other. Whether you don't like them or whether you don't think they're talented, that's all beside the point. If we're getting the boat ashore, you have to find the best in that other person and help them to see the best in themselves."
She was rocking the boat with a remarkably talented ensemble and director Steve McQueen, whose wife first handed him Solomon Northup's memoir, "Twelve Years a Slave." Born a free man in New York, Northup was lured to Washington, D.C., drugged, beaten and sold into slavery.
"Steve presents such a complex and complete landscape of the reality of everyday life in slavery. There's so many types of people that we see -- we've never seen that on screen before -- so that we could actually imagine ourselves," the actress told the Post-Gazette during the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Before, it would just be, like, an evil master, a fainting mistress, the defiant slave who runs away and gets whipped, and the slaves that pay attention. We could never imagine ourselves as any of those."
White people, she continued, would say, "You know what? My people didn't have the money so I know we didn't own anything." Black people? "This is depressing me, I don't want to hear about it" or they might assume they would be the runaways.
"Nobody ever presented it fully the way you present people in a dollar economy. There would be all kinds of people there, living their lives, doing the best they can. ... You cannot only imagine yourself there, which makes it scary -- oh, we fell down the rabbit hole with Solomon and maybe I'm Solomon. You can also imagine your forebears somewhere there."
Ms. Woodard, 60, was nominated for an Oscar for 1983's "Cross Creek" and is a four-time Emmy winner. She earned another 12 Emmy nominations, including for 1995's "The Piano Lesson" filmed in Pittsburgh.
In "12 Years," she is on screen for only minutes (she spent a day filming, five with cast and crew) but portrays a woman like few others.
She is Mistress Harriet Shaw, slave turned common-law wife of a white plantation owner. Clad in a demure dress and lacy cap, the character serves tea and cookies on delicate china on the porch of her home, with servants at her command.
Mistress Shaw befriends Patsey, a slave from an adjacent plantation. Northup wrote that Patsey had "an air of loftiness in her movement" but her back "bore the scars of a thousand stripes ... because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress."
Women faced particular peril, from the threat of rape and wrenching separation from their children to the humiliation of a husband trolling the slave quarters for sex.
"It was not a woman's world and we were all left to fight for a place to breathe and a place for our children to stand in. We were also left to fight over whatever little bit of surplus fell on the floor after the dealings of men."
"12 Years" was the audience favorite at the Toronto festival and prompted superlatives from critics that could, oddly, be a mixed box-office blessing.
"We have to get audiences to understand that when they say things at film festivals like, 'Oh, this is a monumental film and it devastated me and I felt the triumph and you'll be changed by it,' a lot of people are like, you know what? I don't really want all that to happen so I'm not going to see it.
"We have to tell them that it's beautiful and it will fill out your family tree in a way," just as families share tales of relatives who did something embarrassing or illegal.
"That's still our family history and we embrace it but slavery, 300 years is a big chunk of who we are and it is the chunk that has made us into a super power. It established us as a world power economically and it's a chunk we don't even want to admit existed because we think we have some stake it in -- some either shame or guilt."
Ms. Woodard's maternal relatives were Texas sharecroppers while her father's Texas relatives rushed to claim land when the Oklahoma territory opened. She comes from big families -- 12, 17, even 20 children (all surviving) a few generations back.
The actress and her husband have a daughter, 22, and son, 19. Describing her role as listener and supporter, she says, "They're the ones swimming, and if they need to touch the side of the pool occasionally, they know that I'm there."
In much the same way, she befriended Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, 30, who emerged from a field of 1,000 to play Patsey. Mr. McQueen told a press conference, "It was like searching for Scarlett O'Hara; it was a quest."
Ms. Nyong'o may find herself competing for supporting actress honors opposite, among others, Oprah Winfrey from "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
At the press conference, Ms. Woodard tried to ensure that the younger woman next to her got a chance to address the media mainly interested in actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.
"This is a great launch for her. She's not only very gifted as an actor but she's very intelligent as a woman and she's very beautiful and she's very African -- however, she's African," she said later in a hotel suite where she was doing interviews.
"If she was Caucasian, we know she'd be set," much like a Jennifer Lawrence or Carey Mulligan. She would be working until she didn't want to work anymore and offered scripts for different kinds of roles to allow her to keep unfolding as an artist, she suggested.
"But that has not been the case with women who are, first of all, brown, whether they are brown Latinas, brown and dark brown African-Americans. Yes, there's Jennifer Lopez, yes there's Halle [Berry] but they have a European look that the people that green-light and give money and fund things have felt, 'Oh that's palatable to the American public.'
"So, it hasn't happened for generations for all of us coming through when we had the big moment," she said, which is why she has toggled among TV, film and, occasionally, stage.
It will be telling if Ms. Nyong'o is consigned to peripheral or supporting roles. "We've been talking about it for years, but we'll be face to face with it and unable to deny it when she's as talented, as beautiful and as dark brown as she is. So we'll see."
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