McQueen achieves it in large part because of an observational approach that refuses to cut away. The common film language for depicting torture is to edit together a series of close, specifically-framed shots (heightened by sound effects) so as to “create” the experience. McQueen takes the opposite and more dangerous approach, lingering at length on widely-framed beatings, shifting from one tool of abuse to the next. All in one shot. Never cutting away. One wonders how the actors themselves were able to endure these prolonged takes, but as Ejiofor points out, “this was exactly what Solomon had talked about, and what he went through.”

Even with the demands that such an approach requires, Fassbender is passionate about the unforgiving effect McQueen evokes. “We’re used to seeing Master, Mid-Shot, Close-Up, but it doesn’t have to be that way…to do the long takes, it’s getting rid of these safety nets of coverage,” he explains. “It’s on. Now! All these things become palpable on the camera.” Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, a native Kenyan who plays a key role as fellow slave Patsey (and must endure, amongst other things, both whippings and a rape), adds that it was, “challenging, heart-breaking, humiliating. But these things did actually happen.” As Woodard also defends the approach, saying, “The only way to be wrong creatively is to not go fully into the direction you’re going to. [Steve] has the bravery to play it up to the edge of the glass.”

Such brutality eventually leads to a reach toward the spiritual. But as the cast points out, the reason we see both slave and master turn to the Bible (Slaves to endure and overcome, Masters to justify) speaks not simply to the extremes of Scriptural power on one hand and Scriptural perversion on the other, but more deeply to the spiritual void created by experiences on both sides of the slavery exchange. “Man has always felt a void and wanted to fill it with something,” Woodard says, “either in dire circumstances, or putting people in dire circumstances.”

To expound on this thought, Fassbender recalls a moment when a little girl who was an on-set extra watched him prepare himself to become Mr. Epps. “I was pacing around trying to get into the head of the character and I looked up and she came into the door and she’s standing there, looking at me,” he recalls.  “And she says, ‘Are you okay?’ It almost broke me down. She knew there was something wrong.” This speaks to the spiritual void, Fassbender says, because, “to be giving out pain, every day, there’s an abnormality.”

For much of the film, we see Solomon Northup experience religion only on the periphery. He respects his fellow slaves’ prayers and hymns but does not participate. But in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Solomon has what Ejiofor describes as “a real moment of transformation”. The slaves are burying one of their own when they begin to sing the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll”. It is here that Solomon goes from merely respecting their spirituality to engaging it. 

“There’s a sense of letting go of something…it’s a bittersweet moment,” Ejiofor says. “As he watches the man being buried, he realizes this could be his fate. In order to keep on, he’s going to have to change some part of his viewpoint. The way that happens to him is that he takes onboard the community, which I think in a way he hasn’t done before. He’s a part of this other thing. He has to somehow embrace that. And alongside that, he looks to spirituality. These two aspects are what’s going to keep him alive, and he recognizes that instinctually. He doesn’t reflect or make a decision. His instinct is towards life. It’s a moment where religion impacts him for the first time. He’s always been “religious”, but never impacted by its strength – what Martin Luther King would refer to as, ‘To find a way out of no way.’ And that’s the spiritual awakening of that moment.”