Alfre Woodard is one of many talented actors featured in 12 Years a Slave. ScreenCrave recently spoke to the veteran about the film and her character, Mistress Shaw. We also discussed the importance of acknowledging slavery, and how 12 Years could help heal some old wounds. It was an engaging conversation that touched on all facets of American history.

Mistress Shaw is in an interesting position. She’s not part of high society, but she’s not out in the fields either. How would you explain her station in life?

Alfre Woodard: She’s the one of the plantation. She’s the mistress. I don’t pass judgement on her because what she was able to do and [what] she was trying to pass on to Patsey was — she recognized her nobility. There are other people she could have had tea with… She chose somebody in a very low station. She wouldn’t even talk to the people in that state at her plantation. But Patsey had nobility and a strength in her. She’s described as effortlessly sensual by Solomon Northup in his memoir. She’s saying to Patsey, you don’t have to toil like this. Don’t do this to yourself… If you are a person of the house, you aren’t necessarily hating having to sleep with the master because you’re going to sleep with somebody anyway. It might as well be somebody where you can have a soft bed and not get your face punched.

As a viewer, I felt emotionally changed after watching this film. How did you respond to the finished product?

Alfre Woodard: I just felt like I had been kicked in the middle of my very being. I felt like, ‘ugh,’ such a big exhale. But at the same time, I felt grounded. I felt like a family secret had been told. It just made me realize the depth of my family rather than making me feel like most people feel, ashamed. Black people feel ashamed hearing about slavery. White people feel guilty. They’re just like, ‘I wasn’t even there. My people don’t have money.’ It made me feel like family. Like this is what we’ve been waiting for. This allows us all to embrace slavery as a significant chunk of who we are. It’s our childhood as a nation you know? A person can change their name and move to the city when they’re 18 years old. They can be a climber and up-and-coming, but they’re never going to be whole if they try to pretend that they didn’t grow up and live the life they led before they were on their own. Somehow I felt satisfied and happy, like I’d been introduced to my whole family.


Was there a scene or moment in the film that really struck a cord with you?

Alfre Woodard: I’ve already seen it twice now, but when I burst into tears each time and just sob, it’s when that woman is singing at the grave. The song, the timbre of her voice, when she starts singing that’s when I lose it. Not after the other moments. I have to consciously breathe through those other moments that are tough, but I don’t cry at those moments. I cry when that woman starts singing. Every time I do. That gets me.

Yes. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Alfre Woodard: Maybe it’s because  that is the song that I’ve heard my grandmother and my great-grandmother sing with just about daily life. That is the Balm in Gilead, the spiritual is the Balm in Gilead in our DNA. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve come to, or how far you go. If you’re a colored child of the South, when you hear that you recognize the healing power and the strengthening power in that song.

The film’s opening is pretty sobering. The sight of those male slaves reminded me that if this was 150 years earlier it could have been my dad, brothers or nephews there.

Alfre Woodard: It was a like a beautiful, living, breathing fine arts painting. When you saw that first overseer start talking about the cane and the dialect than man had, you knew, ‘OK, this is going to be real.’ We know from Steve McQueen it’s always going to be real.

12 Years a Slave should be required viewing. 

Alfre Woodard: We need to figure out a way to get young people of all races and denominations.  [We need] to make sure young people go to see it. It just isn’t something that mature people want to see and talk about.

12 Years a Slave opens in theaters October 18.