Steve McQueen and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talk 12 Years a Slave, Part 3

The director of the gripping narrative tells The Root that slavery was 100 times worse than the film conveyed, and responds to a Schindler’s List comparison.

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HLG: I’d like to talk about your transition from making art films to feature films. Is there a tension between the narrative and the aesthetic?

SM: For me, art is like poetry and filmmaking is like the novel. I’m using the same words to say the same thing but saying them differently. With artworks, it’s more abstract, more fractured.

HLG: The body has always been central to your work, from naked wrestlers to exposed sex addicts in Shame to the flogged black body in 12 Years. What was your vision? Talk about the use of the body in your work.

SM: I think people overexaggerate that, but at the same time, I totally understand why. All we have is our bodies. That’s our vessel. But what I’m interested in is not necessarily that but the subjects that are around it. Shame is about sexual addiction and how the Internet fuels that addiction. Same thing with slavery. The story is about the environment, and how individuals have to make sense of it, how we locate the self in events. The body is used, but it’s a byproduct of the bigger question.

HLG: Now I’d like to know how you depicted the extreme and relentless scenes of cruelty. The potential too-much-ness of, for example, the lynching scene, and when Solomon beats Patsy. What political purpose does it serve?

SM: That picture of Solomon hanging there was, for me—it had to represent all the hundreds of thousands of people who were lynched. I had to do that because in some way it was representing those people who never had a name and who never had a grave. People talk about what happened, but when you visualize it, when you see it ... I was very careful about how I brought that to the narrative.

There’s a subtlety that leads up to the crescendo of Patsy being whipped by Solomon. I had to do it because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror as an artist and not do it that way ... I’m making a picture of what took place in those times, and if I didn’t do it justice, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself.

HLG: Talk about the tension between portraying the South as beautiful and conveying the horrors of slavery.

SM: People have said to me “It’s so beautiful,” and that’s because it is so beautiful. Horrific things happen in beautiful places. I can’t put a filter on life. Life is perverse. Just the other day I was taking my son to school on my bike, and two police cars and an ambulance zoomed past us. After dropping him off, I went to the café where I have my coffee every morning. They told me before I got there [that] a 7-year-old child was run over by a garbage truck ... the father was there.

Life is perverse. It was a beautiful day. You had these beautiful plantations, but horrific things happen in the most beautiful places.