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 3 of their conversation, the two discuss why the hardest scenes to watch were important, and McQueen’s reaction to a Schindler’s List comparison.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Do you think that this year’s remarkable slate of films—Fruitvale, 12 Years a Slave, Many Rivers to Cross—are an aberration, or do they signal the start of a new chapter in black cinema and documentary?
Steve McQueen: I hope so, because there are thousands of stories to tell. No one knew who Solomon Northup was, and that story should be engraved in everyone’s head. How come there’s not a feature film about the Underground Railroad? They’re just amazing stories, as well as them being from the African-American experience. At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business, and these are amazing stories, period.
HLG: And they remain to be tapped?