The âSlaveâ Directorâs Narrative:<br />
Steve McQueen [INTERVIEW]

The ‘Slave’ Director’s Narrative:
Steve McQueen [INTERVIEW]

Film school dropout. Celebrated gallery artist. Oscar winner? Steve McQueen talks ‘12 Years a Slave’

Craigh Barboza

by Craigh Barboza, October 18, 2013

The âSlaveâ Directorâs Narrative:<br />
Steve McQueen [INTERVIEW]

Steve McQueen

Photo courtesy of


Steve McQueen, the Black British director at least (not the legendary actor), isn’t a household name yet, but he will be soon thanks to 12 Years a Slave. The highly anticipated drama, opening in limited release today, turns out to be not just a stunning piece of bravura moviemaking, but perhaps the greatest film ever made about “the greatest wrong inflicted on any race,” as Honest Abe put it.

12 Years a Slave is the third feature film by McQueen, who isn’t the type to shy away from difficult subjects. Hunger and Shame, his first two movies, were also portraits of men imprisoned: one physically, the other psychologically. Prior to coming to Hollywood, McQueen was a prominent gallery artist in London, where his carefully wrought films and videos—one of which restaged a famous Buster Keaton stunt with a collapsing house—helped win him the 1999 Turner Prize.

Now 44, McQueen might need to clear some space on the mantle of his home in Amsterdam for a golden statuette. Coming off its triumphs at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it took home the top award, 12 Years a Slave has been showered with accolades from critics and is now favored as the movie to beat for Best Picture in 2014.

Adapted from the 1853 bestseller, the movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a distinguished free Black man in 1841 New York, conned into traveling to the nation’s capital while his family is away, then drugged, shackled and stripped of his free papers. “You’re nothing but a runaway ni**er from Georgia,” his captors tell him.

Shipped to the Deep South and sold at auction, Solomon winds up on a cotton plantation in Louisiana, the conditions of which are so horrid an enslaved woman asks him to end her life as a favor. This is a riches to rags slave narrative. “It defies the more common, and reassuring, American story of upward mobility,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the film’s press materials. “Northup’s trajectory is down.” (Gates is credited as a historical consultant.)

Asked why he wanted to tell this type of story, McQueen will say he was drawn to the “scale and scope” of slavery. Unlike earlier films, though, the director, himself a descendant of enslaved West Indians, wanted to convey what chattel bondage actually looked and felt like almost entirely through the eyes of a slave. To its credit, the finished R-rated film (produced by Brad Pitt, who has a cameo, and made on a modest budget of $16 million) doesn’t diminish the horror of what happened or concede to Hollywood convention to turn Solomon’s story into an uplifting moral lesson.

‘12 Years a Slave’ trailer

‘12 Years a Slave’ trailer

Instead, 12 Years a Slave captures images of slavery so vivid and agonizing they do something you would never think possible on screen: adequately represent the countless atrocities of that profoundly shameful chapter in American history. Along with the senseless beatings, rape and hangings, are riveting performances caught in close-up, and beautifully composed shots of oak trees with moss hanging like tattered clothes. In one scene McQueen trains his camera on the last flickers of ember from a rescue letter that’s been burned to a shrivel in the dark of night. There’s probably no other filmmaker on the planet who could’ve made a movie as distressing and equally exquisite as this.  

Fox Searchlight will initially release 12 Years a Slave in 18 markets and gradually roll it out during a busy awards season. McQueen, meanwhile, has been working overtime gearing up for the release. After Toronto, there was a quick press junket in New York, a flight back to Amsterdam, then back to New York weeks later for a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art, where McQueen thanked the crowd and introduced the film by saying “I’m an artist who makes films” and little else.

McQueen is a bit of a mystery. He’s someone who wants to be understood, but speaks quickly. He’s friendly but in a formal way. The director admits that he barely watches movies. A lot of the visual cues in 12 Years a Slave came from paintings and old photographs. During our brief interview at the Conrad Hotel in downtown Manhattan, asked McQueen to narrate his own journey on the film.

EBONY: Early in the film we learn that the slave we met in the field was actually a gifted musician and respected member of his community, before his life got turned upside down. What appealed to you about this particular approach?

Steve McQueen: I wanted to start the movie off with an American, a free man in the North, who gets pulled into slavery through a kidnapping [and has to find his way back]. I needed an “in” on this particular subject matter, and that for me was the best one. I like the

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