Almost any time a white face appears onscreen in 12 Years a Slave, it’s like seeing Jason’s hockey mask in Friday the 13th; You know nothing good lies ahead. For almost the entirety of the film’s 135-minute running time, there are few respites from the parade of white men and women visiting pain and degradation upon the main character Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a respected freeborn violinist who is tricked and sold into slavery: Benedict Cumberbatch’s “humane” Bible-espousing master, Paul Dano’s vicious overseer, Michael Fassbender’s alcoholic plantation owner and his vindictive wife, played by Sarah Paulson. Even Paul Giamatti — Paul Giamatti! — plays a slave trader who slaps Northup and later blithely separates a slave mother from her children.
The reviews have been almost universal raves, but the one small, recurring quibble from a few critics, including Vulture’s own David Edelstein, has come from the fourth quarter Hail Mary appearance of Brad Pitt as one of the film's only sympathetic white characters, a Canadian abolitionist who tries to help Northup. Take a look:
• “It’s all so credibly enacted that once Brad Pitt (whose Plan B productions produced the film) arrives in a bit part as a kind-hearted Canadian who visits the plantation and speaks out against slavery, the character's messianic qualities seem like a bit much.” —Eric Kohn, Indiewire
• “Executive producer Brad Pitt shows up in the last 20 minutes, looking vaguely Amish, and given that there hasn’t been a likeable white character since the opening minutes of the movie, it feels incongruous to see him suddenly come on screen and immediately give a speech about God-given racial parity. But by this time, we’re ready for the light at the end of the tunnel, even if his dialogue does seem right out of Lincoln.” —Chris Willman, the Playlist
• “The movie’s low point is the appearance of co-producer Brad Pitt, cast as a golden-locked carpenter—a savior—who listens to Solomon and says, “Your story—it is amazing and in no good way.” It would have been more interesting if he’d gone against the grain and played the conscienceless master.” —David Edelstein, Vulture
Or, as one particularly vexed colleague of mine said, “Brad Pitt giving himself that part was like if [Annapurna Pictures founder] Megan Ellison had cast herself as the SEAL who shot Bin Laden at the end of Zero Dark Thirty.”
But what about the people who actually made the film? Did they find it odd that Brad Pitt gave himself the role of practically the only decent white man in the entire film?
“Gave!?” asked Ejiofor, laughing, when I posed the question while interviewing him for a profile. “Yeah, I think everything else was pretty [much] taken. But, you know, without him, there wouldn’t be a film. He was just so instrumental in making this film happen. He’s such a champion of filmmakers and the things that he believes in and can put his weight behind.” Plus, he added, Pitt agreeing to take a role in the film is likely what allowed director Steve McQueen to, among other things, cast Ejiofor, who doesn’t yet have Pitt’s marquee name. “I don’t know what the full machinations are, but I imagine that him being around and lending that kind of support and weight to something is very freeing for [financiers]. They think, Okay, well, we can give the director some latitude.”
Pitt, likewise, defended his appearance when we spoke on the phone, calling it merely, “a cameo in support of the film.” Was playing the sympathetic savior at the end his choice or McQueen’s? “It helped get the thing done,” he said. “I sit in a very fortunate position where I can help push things over the edge with difficult stories, and this was one of those instances. So it’s merely for that, not so much that I was certainly needed performance-wise.” In other words, someone was going to have to play that part, and it might as well be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. And as to why he’s the only white person the audience can remotely root for in the film, he said, laughing, “Well, it’s slavery. It’s a slavery period [piece], so you know … ”