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Actress Alfre Woodard On Truthful Storytelling In '12 Years A Slave'


As we mentioned, "12 Years a Slave" had a major impact at last night's Academy Awards. The film walked away with three awards - best picture, best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong'o and best adapted screenplay for John Ridley. The film was packed with star power, including a small but provocative role for Alfre Woodard as Harriet Shaw, the slave mistress of a nearby plantation owner.

And if you've seen the film, then you will remember that it was Mistress Shaw who gave the slave Patsey - played by Lupita Nyong'o - a piece of soap, for which Patsey was brutally punished. Last fall, we spoke with Alfre Woodard about her wide-ranging career including her work in "12 Years a Slave." And she told us what it was like to work with director Steve McQueen.

ALFRE WOODARD: Steve McQueen is probably - I love him, so I'm going to say the top filmmaker in the world right alive. One of the things that he does with this picture is that he paints such a full landscape of what life was like in a slave economy. And we get snatched into slavery with Solomon Northup who's a free man living in Saratoga Springs, New York who gets kidnapped into slavery. And that's the entrance that we as viewers take.

MARTIN: It is based on a true story. There is in fact a man named Solomon Northup who was a free black man. He wrote a memoir about it after his escape. And I'm not sure that a lot of people know about this part of the story, that there were free black people, that they were in fact kidnapped and sold into slavery. And also, your character is based in historical fact. There were characters like your character Mistress Harriet Shaw. Could you talk a little bit about her?

WOODARD: I play Mistress Shaw. I live on an adjacent plantation, and I do have my freedom. She is a woman who, like all women during this period, whether they were field slaves, house slaves, white mistresses of households - whoever they were, women had a very tough row to hoe. And you get to see how little actual power they had in the society. But they all figured out a way to use the personal power they had as women to try to make their lives livable.

MARTIN: This film is very brutal. But there is no doubt that what is being described is real. It is attested to. It's a part of historical fact. Do you think that people have an appetite for this?

WOODARD: Steve McQueen, he is a very truthful storyteller - not judgmental, not commenting, presenting a truthful situation. And when you do that without blinking, without hedging your bets, that is the thing that people are arrested by. The toughness is that you have no place to go from it. He does shots where he won't pull away. If you were there with Solomon in real life, there's nowhere to go. So I just want people to know that it is the truthfulness that we don't normally get in cinema that makes it uncomfortable. And the violence is never gratuitous. It is the fact of the violence that is a part of our history.

MARTIN: But isn't that what makes it hard to bear?

WOODARD: We were a slave economy longer than we have been anything else. But yet, black people don't want to hear about it. They feel ashamed or anger. White people don't want to hear about it. They say, we didn't have any money. We didn't know anything. I don't even know these - you know, who the plantation people were. And all of the new arrivals in the past 50 years are like, I don't even know what you're all talking about. So as Americans, we want to be balanced and successful as a nation, as individuals. But we want to deny that we ever had a childhood.

What I love about this is this great gift that Steve has given us. It fills that anxious void of us not having any roots, any balance. And so once we accept it - and so black people, white people, brown people, everybody will be able to say, oh, OK, that's what is. It's like having a great family secret that was awful and beautiful at the same time told to you when you get to be 11 years old. You suddenly feel, OK, I'm real. I get it. So there's something very settling about it at the same time. There's a beauty in that. And we also watch Solomon, who we have identified with, go through hell, and he's able to persevere because of his love of his family.

That's what he's getting back to. I think it is a triumphant film, and I think when Americans watch this film, we'll have a common language to even have a dialogue. So when things happen like Trayvon being murdered, we can actually hear the other person better and get it that a hoodie means something - something so comfortable to certain ages and certain parts of our culture, and it means something so dire to another.

MARTIN: That was an excerpt from a previous conversation I had with the legendary actress Alfre Woodard about her role in "12 Years a Slave." That film, once again, took home three Oscars last night, including best picture. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you have been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.