Sometimes less is more and in “12 Years a Slave,” veteran actress Alfre Woodard has a small, yet powerful, role!
In the critically-acclaimed Steve McQueen drama, Woodard plays Mistress Harriet Shaw, who is married to a slave master.
The four-time Emmy Award winner told AlwaysAList.com during our interview at the swanky Conrad Hotel in New York City that once she heard McQueen was attached to the project; she didn’t even need to read the script.
So you were excited to work with Steve McQueen?
I was told that Steve McQueen wanted me to be in his film and I said, “OK I’m in it,” and they said, “No, we’re going to send you the script,” and I said, “No, I’m in it.”
In “12 Years a Slave,” your character Mistress Harriet Shaw is the wife to a slave owner. How did that happen?
Yeah, common law. There was a lot of forced rape, but if you could get in a position as a concubine you better take it. That meant you weren’t going to get a lash everyday and out in the sun picking cotton. We can be judgmental all we want to, but you tell me whose going to make that decision not to. It’s not that anybody ever knew slavery would be overturned in their lifetime. It’s 300 years and in 300 years everybody, including indentured white people, tried to figure out a way of how am I going to stay alive and stay out of harm’s way as much as possible and keep my children out of harm’s way as much as possible.
Slavery was such an atrocity, yet, in this film we see that you at some point became privileged. Do you think viewers will be able to understand how that happened?
If they ever listened to the old people talk, old, old aunties and great, great aunties, Black people cannot get surprised about how any of us got over. How any of us survived it. That’s what we did. We used our wits and we are the daughters, all of us thriving today and figuring a way around the fact that we don’t get paid the same as men get paid for the same day’s work, figuring out how to use power. How to actually be in control even if we’re not at the head, we figure out how to control it. That’s what sisters do. So they can’t be surprised at all.
There seems to be an increased interest in films about slaves. Why do you think that’s happening?
We have 300 years of slave history, longer than we have of not having slavery as Americans. So how are you going to tell stories and not tell some of those stories? Nobody ever says, ‘oh, there’s too many holocaust movies, oh there’s too many World War II movies, there’s too many westerns or gangster movies.’ We tell three movies set in the slave era and everybody’s going, ‘ok, that’s enough.’ That’s nonsense. ‘Django Unchained’ was revenge western. It was not a realistic story. This is a story told firsthand by the man that it happened to and he published it five months after he regained his freedom. You don’t get that firsthand account from anybody unless it’s an astronaut who has gone to the moon and came right back. Even they don’t write their stories right away. So it’s a true gift that we have that Solomon tells us his story and that Steve McQueen creates such a realistic landscape of what it was like to live in a slave economy that we can imagine ourselves there; that we can imagine an evil master, a defiant slave and a weeping mistress of the household. And I defy anyone who says, ‘oh, I would’ve done this, or I would’ve killed…’ No you wouldn’t have! you would’ve found a way to stay alive.
Brad Pitt is an executive producer of this film. Were you surprised by his passion regarding this story being told?
No, I’m not because Brad Pitt is that kind of man. He’s an artist but he lives in the real world. He’s engaged with the world and he’s got all these children who have birth places in the world that he and Angelina are dedicated to and they specifically make sure they’re connected to their identities. So for him to support this film that I think not only is a gift to us now, but cinematically it is historic. How masterful Steve McQueen is with filmmaking. They will be talking about this film forever and hopefully it gives a common language for us all to start to understand each other more. As he says, he won’t do anything as important ever again as making sure that this film got made and the story got taken to the public. He will be starring in other stuff and doing glitzy stuff but he’s right. When Peter meets him, he will say, “Oh Brad Pitt, you’re the one that produced ‘12 Years a Slave.'”
Steve McQueen is British. What do you think about the fact it wasn’t an American who made this film about slavery?
Steve McQueen is one of those filmmakers that will be talked about and dissected 40 years from now. His parents are from the West Indies although he was brought up in England. But England was the top of the triangle–England, West Africa, the Indies; the slave trade was not just here. This is his story as much as it is ours. It’s as much Benedict Cumberbatch as ours. It is as much Chiwetel’s, an Ibo, as ours.
“12 Years of Slave” is in theaters now in limited release. You can see the film nationwide as the amount of theaters increase moving towards Thanksgiving.