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.

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI

Editor’s note: You can read part 1 of this conversation here.

When the creators of a drama that would bring Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave to the big screen needed a historical consultant, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who edited a recent edition of the memoir, was a natural choice.

Gates, a Harvard history scholar, producer of PBS’s African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and editor-in-chief of The Root, read the script and offered notes on the accuracy of the film’s unflinching depiction of the story of a man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and forced to work on a Louisiana plantation.

Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, the movie premiered in the U.S. in August at the Telluride Film Festival. Since opening in limited release in October and wide release in November, it has enjoyed box office success and become a consensus front-runner in the race for best picture at the Academy Awards.

Now Gates turns from consultant to interviewer, probing McQueen about his intentions, as well as his experiences and lessons learned, in making the gripping film.

In part 2 of their conversation, the two discuss the lasting effects of slavery and McQueen’s belief that it’s time for official apologies from leaders around the world.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: What surprised you most in translating Solomon Northup’s story as he narrated and wrote it from the page to the screen?

Steve McQueen: Seeing the images. All I wanted to do was see those images. That has always been the power for me. Seeing those images. When I read the book, I wanted to see those images. Slavery is like the elephant in the room, and what you do is sprinkle flour over it and make it visible. We have to confront this topic in a real way. No one’s blind anymore. No excuses. That’s the power of cinema.

HLG: Why do you think the West is blind to the elephant in the room? Is it only the West or is it everywhere?