Steve McQueen and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talk 12 Years a Slave, Part 2

The director of the gripping narrative tells The Root that slavery is “the elephant in the room,” and says it’s time for official apologies.

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One can say, “It was 100-odd years ago, get over it!” OK, let’s get over it. But things have to be put in place for us to get over it. We’re talking about 400 years of slavery and mental torture. So guilt isn’t productive. I’m not interested in guilt. But something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It wasn’t perfect, but at least there was some kind of acceptance. Of course the people who did it aren’t here anymore, so there’s no use talking about guilt. And you even had Africans selling African. I know some presidents who have apologized for that ...

HLG: Yes, the president of Benin actually got on his knees at the altar at a church in the U.S. and asked for forgiveness.

SM: Yes, and a president of Ghana has apologized as well. When has a U.S. president ever apologized? How do we go forward? It’s time for the U.S., it’s time for the British, it’s time for the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, et cetera, to apologize.

HLG: Yes, and perhaps the airing of 12 Years a Slave will be the first step. What about your opinion of African Americans? Do you feel making this film helped you understand them better?

SM: I’ve always had a connection with African-American culture. I remember looking at Michael Jordan, black sportsmen, and saying, “Wow, people are equal over there.” I remember coming to America in 1977 to visit my family. I’ve always had that connection with America.

But the thing that shocked me about America for black Americans is education. I was so lucky in that way, being brought up in the U.K. But only for this reason: We had free education, so everyone to some extent—obviously it’s not perfect—at least had a shot.

What I love about black people is that there’s a certain connection immediately ... it’s natural. There’s a connection without even trying ... there is something that is intrinsically common. No water, no continent, no country, can separate that.

HLG: You know, we’re all black. We’re all products of our specific time, place, circumstances and cultures. Do African-American filmmakers have certain blind spots, inhibitions and perceptual habits that a black British filmmaker has?

SM: I don’t think so, no. I hope not. I wouldn’t dare say that.

HLG: Do you think being English was an advantage or disadvantage in making the film?