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.

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 idea that the audience is this character; what he sees, we see. Of course, when I first started work on the project I had no idea who Solomon Northup was. I had the idea of following a free man who becomes a slave.

EBONY: And you were planning to do this as an original story?

SM: Yes, John Ridley and I were developing the script. Then my wife [writer/art historian Bianca Stigter] said, “why don’t you look into firsthand accounts of slavery?” She found this book, which was 12 Years a Slave, and I was so stunned to find out that half an idea I had in my head was actually fully formed. I opened up the book and it read like a script. Here it was. Here was this idea I had, written by this guy Solomon Northup, whom I had never heard of, and I remember being really upset with myself for not knowing about this book. Then I found out no one I know knew this book. You could almost compare it to the diary of Anne Frank. This is like the American version of that book, and I just thought, I have to make this film.

EBONY: How far had you gotten with your original screenplay?

SM: Not far at all. John and I were tossing around ideas.

EBONY: Did you have an ending in mind that was different from the book?

SM: There was nothing really written. We just had half an idea. We had done a lot of research, but then the book happened and that was it.

EBONY: What were some of the discoveries you and John made about slavery during your research?

SM: [Deep breath] Discoveries? There were so many. What fascinated me the most was how much the lines were blurred back then. People think they have an idea of what slavery was like but, actually, they don’t. Take Alfre Woodard’s character, Mistress Shaw, for example. [Mistress Shaw, a former slave, married her White master and is now waited on by the house slaves.] I mean, we mustn’t forget that Africans sold Africans, that the complexity of slavery is vast and deep.

EBONY: In 12 Years a Slave, you show how the “peculiar institution” not only destroyed the lives of slaves and their families but also tore at the souls of White men and women entangled with it.   

SM: Sure. I mean, everyone was damaged, none more so than the slaves, of course. But everyone was tainted by this unfortunate episode, and that’s the way I want people to think when they walk out of the cinema. It’s not about pointing fingers. [Laughs] We’re beyond that.

EBONY: For years, slavery seemed like a taboo subject in Hollywood. It was too divisive and uncommercial for any studio to take on. How were you able to get it made?

SM: Well, I don’t think the Holocaust is too uncommercial for people to look at, so I don’t see any reason why slavery couldn’t exist within the same area of film. The abolition of slavery happened 150 years ago; there’s a Black president now; the unfortunate situation with Trayvon Martin; the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington; the revoking of voting rights. All of these circumstances create a kind of perfect storm where, I really do think, people are more interested than ever in reflecting on their past.

EBONY: During the 1990s, you enrolled at NYU to study film but dropped out after three months to pursue an art career. Is it true you hadn’t even set foot on a real movie set until you made your debut film, Hunger?

SM: That’s right. I had never been on a movie set.

EBONY: So did directing actors come naturally to you?

SM: Yes, very much. I love creating images, of course, because I’m an artist. I’ve worked with my cameraman, Sean Bobbitt, for 13 years. But I love actors. That’s my bread and butter, and I got to work with some amazing ones on 12 Years. People like Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the new star Lupita Nyong’o. That’s such a thrill.

EBONY: Lupita is a revelation in the film. How did you cast her?

SM: It was like searching for Scarlett O’Hara. We auditioned a thousand girls and she was at Yale’s drama school—she hadn’t graduated yet—and when I saw her I thought, this is the girl. It’s amazing that we found her. We had an amazing crew and a real camaraderie on set. We knew we were doing things that were very, very difficult. But at the same time, we had that foundation where we could support each other and achieve certain things that we had to do within the film.

EBONY: “Cinema,” you once said, “has a responsibility.” Is that why you became a director?

SM: Did I say that? [Laughs] I don’t know if I agree with that statement anymore. I would revise that and say, cinema has a responsibility to me. I need to have a reason why I’m doing something. Otherwise I’m lost.