When Alfre Woodard got the call saying that “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen wanted her for a pivotal role, she immediately accepted, but the film's producers wanted the Tulsa-born actress to read John Ridley's script before she gave her final word.
But Woodard's enthusiasm only grew once she pored over the screenplay.
“And of course I read it, and Mistress Shaw was a revelation for me,” Woodard said in a recent phone interview. “It's someone we haven't been introduced to much in film or literature, but somebody who is known in Southern oral traditions.”
Despite being an important part of the national debate leading up to the Civil War and, eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation, Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” spent nearly 100 years out of print.
The uncompromising story chronicles how Northup, an educated freedman and classically trained violinist living in New York, was kidnapped by slave traders during a performance in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery at auction in New Orleans. Northup then spent the next dozen years suffering under the brutal treatment of Louisiana plantation owner Edwin Epps until he was finally able to get a letter to his family and prove his free status.
Even after it was rediscovered and published in the 1960s, “Twelve Years a Slave” never achieved the public awareness of the slavery novel that came out around the same time, Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin.”
But the broad swath of slavery culture and the levels of hierarchy portrayed in McQueen's version immediately inspired Woodard. Her character, Mistress Harriet Shaw, is a former slave who achieves extraordinary privilege within the plantation system. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, must hide his education and eloquence or face punishment, and he is kept in line by being made culpable in the repression. He is made a “driver,” overseeing the field work and forced into punishing slaves who step out of line.
“One of the great things about Steve's directorial style is that he unflinchingly keeps striving for the truth, the reality of the situation,” Woodard said. “And I think he did that masterfully in bringing us the reality of daily life in a slave economy. And it's peopled with all kinds of people. And so, for the first time, we don't have to look at it from a distance. We are snatched into slavery with Solomon and we experience it in a way that we can't get out of it.
“For the first time, you can imagine yourself in this situation and you can imagine people you know, your ancestors, in this situation,” she said.
‘A complete picture'
Woodard, who was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in 1983's “Cross Creek” and was nominated this year for an Emmy Award for her performance in the recent remake of “Steel Magnolias,” said Mistress Shaw is an example of a woman doing what is required to survive under horrific circumstances.
“She might be a Madam C.J. Walker in another era, she might be Susan Rice in another era,” Woodard said. “But working with what she has, she uses what she's got to get herself out of the fields. And she has to maintain position.”
Woodard, who attended Bishop Kelly High School in Tulsa before moving on to study at Boston University, said she believes “12 Years a Slave” can help broaden people's understanding of slavery, both in how that system was used to subjugate people for hundreds of years and its lasting impact on American society.
“It is a gift that McQueen has given us, because it is a complete picture,” she said. “It's our family story, our family of every color.”