AwardsLine editor Christy Grosz contributed to this report.
Joe Walker, the film editor for 12 Years A Slave, said the depiction of the lynching of Solomon Northup was crafted with much foresight. The scene is one of the most uncomfortable for audiences to watch – a long, grueling take as the main character chokes for breath, a rope tight around his neck, while he desperately tries to prop himself up by his toes that are sinking into a muddy ground. He is left to hang for the entire day as other slaves in the background continue about their chores. Walker said director Steve McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt had a very strong idea of how they wanted to shoot that scene, down to the exact selection of the shots. “It’s partly from a very initial reaction to the book, in which it’s a very key scene,” said Walker. “That kind of casual nightmare, which is the best way I can think of putting it, of the man who’s sort of caught between two masters and nobody has the power to chop him down, leaving him hanging there.”
He noted that the scene seemed to get to the heart of the humble character of Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. “There’s a very wonderful line [in the book] that says how he was caught in the racist midday sun and how he would have swapped a year of hard labor to be under the shade of the nearby peach tree.” Walker said that they always knew the lynching scene was going to be a long, prolonged shot. “It was going to incorporate something that Steve and Sean had seen while shooting a film called Western Deep.” The short film, which McQueen and Bobbitt did together in 2002, explored the world of the miners of the TauTona goldmine of the South Africa. To get to work, they must ride down an elevator 2.4 miles beneath Earth’s surface; it is the world’s deepest working mine. “One of the things that they’d noticed when they were there … none of the workers would look at them,” said Walker. “They had sort of become conditioned to avoid trouble, so this idea blended with the hanging scene.” It was to be a sustained wide shot as the slaves continued their daily routines. He said the “real ingredient” for him was to “landscape the sequence so that the monolithic slab of time that we spend looking … witnessing this event, we get there with a lot of time compression and omissions. We see him waiting for the posse to arrive to lynch him, and we know it’s coming, but we don’t show all the steps. We don’t show the horses arrive fully. We don’t see them dismount. We don’t see them bind his hands and feet. We don’t see them drag him all the way to the tree. When he’s being hung, it’s being … it’s a far too fast, violent event. There’s an argument. The music is very strong. There’s a tolling sound from a baritone saxophone that we used. Then when they left there, everything disappears.” The only sound is the quiet murmur of the cicadas and the sound of his feet sticking in the mud.
“The aim of this is that you’re left with this awkwardness and deeply uncomfortable viewing of that wide shot of him hanging … and held to the point where there’s no friendly cut. There’s no relief. We signal by holding the time that we do. It’s almost like fueling the audience’s subconscious that they are watching something real. There’s no safety net … there’s an element of enduring [something] real. You almost get the audience to a point where they want to stand up and make a scene, you know?” This is Walker’s first Oscar nomination. He also worked on McQueen’s critically acclaimed Shame.