A White waiter serves two Black men in the drawing room of a posh SoHo hotel lobby in New York City: a tumbler of expensive beer for one; a glass of pinot noir for the other. A gaggle of blondes celebrates loudly near the entrance of the reception area where former Spelman College President Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D., idly sits texting on a cellphone. Ironically, neither gives any thought to this backdrop for their conversation about race.
One of the Black men—British born, of Nigerian parents—has never lived in a place where businesses once barred entrance due to skin color. But he knows the American history of discrimination and prejudice as well as any of us. His name is Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for), and his startling performance as Solomon Northup in director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the book 12 Years a Slave, first published in 1853, recently put him on every conceivable best-of-the-year list you could imagine. A question has just been raised about Hollywood’s frequent casting of Blacks in subservient roles, including that of a slave, and Ejiofor’s response is passionate.
“Solomon Northup is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever encountered in my life; [it’s] one of the most amazing stories I have ever been in any kind of contact with,” he says. “To not tell that story would have been disgraceful, in my opinion. I think we cannot be in the business of self-censorship. ’Cause there’s no point. Is it better not to tell the story? Of course not.”
Ejiofor, 36, takes a sip of beer, wipes the wetness from the glass on his jeans and continues. “It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to tell that story. I wouldn’t change that for anything, certainly not for some kind of political notion that somehow it’s not important or doesn’t serve a very specific agenda. No, that’s not something that I subscribe to.”
So how does Ejiofor feel about this watershed year for telling our stories in everything from The Butler and 12 Years to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Fruitvale Station? “We always want to live in an environment where there’s no artificial block to good work,” he says. “I don’t think anybody wins [in] that situation. I don’t think that the public wins, because [people have] not been exposed to what could potentially be great stories. Obviously, Black actors don’t win, because they’re limited in how much work they can do. “There’s tons of talented people doing good stuff,” he continues. “There need not be a block to telling the stories that feature, in prominent parts, Black people. Let’s hope that it is that banner year; that [industry] people let the public decide, as opposed to [assuming] that just because somebody’s Black, the public is not going to be interested. There’s room. Let the stories roll. That’s what we all want.”
Ejiofor is most recognizable to Black audiences for his supporting roles in director Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and Spike Lee’s Inside Man. But his role in the 2002 British indie thriller Dirty Pretty Things put him on the international map more than a decade ago, Ejiofor’s big-time cinematic graduation from his award-winning theater work. His portrayal of Solomon Northup—a freeborn Black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s—has thrust him onto an American A-list at a time when Black actors seem to be experiencing a notable moment.
“It’s hard to know whether there’s a shift [in Hollywood] because your own profile is rising or because what you would call a revolution is occurring,” Ejiofor says of this moment. He laughs freely. “I just don’t know where to pinpoint that. Things have changed in my life and my work, and where that comes from is probably anyone’s guess. My optimistic mind would say it’s a combination of all those things. I still have to say that I did Dirty Pretty Things 11 years ago. That was a very sudden shift in my life and my relationship to my work, and it didn’t feel it was impossible to make a film like that.”
Just then, the waiter approaches with a request. The group of young women had been hoping to move its celebration to our end of the drawing room and wondered if we’d be willing to trade places. Ejiofor assures the waiter we won’t be long. We launch into a conversation about the realities of slavery life detailed in Northup’s memoir and how Ejiofor learned to chop wood, shuck sugar cane and pick cotton for the film.
Northup himself took pride in his sugar cane, and Ejiofor says that taking an ax to trees can be a stress-relieving affirmation of manhood. But picking cotton was potentially the hardest experience of the entire film. “There’s something very mindnumbing about [picking cotton],” he says. “The heat when you’re down there—108 degrees. The overseer: You can hear the crack of the whip in the background. And then the cicadas rising and falling. It’s a completely different universe. You can see how [slaves] can lose their minds. There’s no recourse.”
Beyond the politics, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years a Slave (both by Black directors) depict the realities of each experience with respect, authenticity and exceptional craft.
Critics agree that in the case of 12 Years, its power is, in large part, due to Ejiofor and director McQueen.
“I don’t know what Steve [McQueen] could have come up with that I wasn’t prepared to go to and investigate and try to tell his story,” Ejiofor says. “I didn’t have a hard day in that sense. I had the most extraordinary shooting experience in my [career]; one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.