There are many disturbing scenes in Steve McQueen’s new film, “12 Years a Slave.” Based on the true story of Solomon Northup’s pre-Civil War journey from freedom to slavery and back again, “12 Years” contains horrible images of physical cruelty and suffering. But one scene in particular encapsulates the twisted yet prevailing mindset of many Southern slave owners during that era.
In the middle of the night, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, storms into the slaves’ quarters on his Louisiana plantation, rouses them awake and orders them into the main house. Once there, he commands them to dance. With his fiddle, Northup provides musical accompaniment to the broken, exhausted group. Until he was kidnapped and smuggled southward into slavery, he had been an accomplished musician living with his family in upstate New York.
The scene is surreal and is indicative of Epps’ attitude toward the people who picked his cotton. “He was dependent on his slaves, emotionally, beyond the fact that he’s dependent on them economically,” Fassbender explained when the cast spoke with MTV News. “He’s got this need to be around them all the time.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, further described the slave owner’s mindset: “Epps is somebody who is driven mad by his own brutality,” he said. “I think it was Nelson Mandela who said that if a man puts his foot on another man’s neck, two people suffer. And Epps is sort of the result of that. He’s a man who’s frying his own brain. In fact, I think Solomon, seeing Epps, is terrified of ending up like that, of ending up losing his mind in this place.”
Sarah Paulson portrays Epps’ wife, who is equally brutal toward the slaves. “This is a woman who, to me, just doesn’t have the capacity to reach beyond her own emotional, spiritual and psychological limitations,” Paulson said of her character. “She’s raised by bigots and has a certain set of beliefs that are going to be unchanged no matter what, because she’s just not smart enough to have it be any other way.”
The most unsettling thing about “12 Years a Slave,” and the thought that lingers the longest after seeing it, is that people were actually treated this way, every day. “In that part of the South, at that time, there was nothing to challenge this way of thinking,” Paulson said. “This was the way it was.”