Inside a cheap Thai restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall one evening a few weeks ago, I told the artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen I’d been nervous to meet him, based on what I’d read in the European press. He looked at me with a start.
McQueen had arrived in Los Angeles a week earlier from Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife and two children. Scheduled to appear later at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance for a Q&A following a screening of his film 12 Years a Slave, he’d been seized by a sudden hankering for Chinese food while we’d been riding to his hotel. His driver had suggested a restaurant, but it was no longer in business, and McQueen had spotted this place.
When he’d realized he did not have a wallet on him, I’d offered to pay, which caused him to be concerned; he made me promise that it wasn’t my own money. At the table, he’d pulled out my chair for me. We were the only customers. Christmas lights blinked in the window. We’d each ordered curry, and when the young waitress came back to ask about the food, McQueen pointed at the B-grade health-inspector placard in the window, joking, in his hurried London accent, that it deserved an A. It was late in the meal when I mentioned his reputation among other journalists. He held his chopsticks in his hand. “What did they say?”
McQueen is 44 years old, tall and robust; he wore a T-shirt beneath a lightweight sport jacket and dark slacks and large black-rimmed glasses. He is exacting in his ideas, and sometimes struggles to communicate exactly what he’s thinking (he has occasionally borrowed reporters’ pens and paper to help him articulate his thoughts). He is full of energy. “That I’m difficult?” he asked. I rattled off some other descriptions: “curt,” “combative,” “volatile,” “scornfully dismissive,” “bullish,” “arrogant.” He pondered it a bit more. He asked whether I had an idea why this reputation exists. I told him I was more interested in his.
“It’s journalists getting uppity, and when I get uppity, they write this.” It was an easy caricature: They expect him to be “from the ghetto,” he said, “to behave a certain way.” “Excuse me for saying it,” he said, “but I suppose it’s because I’m Black.”
On both counts, the critics are unanimous: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the greatest movie about slavery ever made. And Steve McQueen may well become the first Black filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Director. For his part, McQueen is happy for the praise but does not see his movie as being “just about slavery.” Nor does he see himself, necessarily, as Black. “It’s a narrative about today,” he says of his film. “It’s not a Black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything.”
The germ of the idea came long ago, around the time he was making his first film, 2008’s Hunger, for which the actor Michael Fassbender literally starved himself to portray the excruciating hunger strike of IRA inmate Bobby Sands. McQueen knew then that he wanted to make a film about a free Black American kidnapped into slavery. The story continued incubating as he made his next film three years later, the lushly bleak Shame, also starring Fassbender, this time as a tortured New Yorker addicted to sex.
McQueen and his wife, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter, both work from home; when he needs a desk, he uses the kitchen table, though he does most of his work walking around the city or riding his bike or Hoovering their narrow home. He discussed his idea with Stigter, who suggested he base the film on a true story and who discovered Twelve Years a Slave, a nineteenth-century best seller long out of print. One of only 192 books written by former slaves, it carries the extraordinary subtitle Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. The story is so astonishing that McQueen likens it to science fiction. “People think they know slavery,” he says. “Often it’s the case they don’t.” “As soon as I had it in my hands,” he says, “I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.”
The idea he had drummed up “was in my hands virtually in script form.” He asked the writer John Ridley to adapt it; McQueen says that 80 percent of the dialogue is lifted from the book. Brad Pitt had seen Hunger and long wanted to work with McQueen. His production company, Plan B Entertainment, agreed to help finance 12 Years a Slave, with Pitt cast in a small role near the end of the film. (Pitt’s reverence for the project is religious: “If I never get to participate in a film again,” he’s said, “this is it for me.”)
With his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen shot the film with one camera and in 35 days, drawing inspiration from the Louisiana setting, where “everything was new: the heat, the crickets, the mosquitoes—it was like going to a prehistoric land.” McQueen took seriously his role as patriarch, in order to allow the cast to “make mistakes and then make bigger mistakes,” resulting in a shoot he describes as “joyous.” “We were a family,” he says. “We ate together. We drank together after the shoots. It moves me, gives me goose pimples thinking about it.” Fassbender told me that the level of focus on set was so high “you could almost hear it humming.”