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

Part 1: The director of the gripping slavery narrative tells The Root how President Obama’s influence was instrumental in its very creation.

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SM: Absolutely.

HLG: Describe your journey of getting the film made. We almost never have slave narratives turned into films.

SM: The production company Plan B was interested in working with me after they saw Hunger, my first film. I came up with the idea of slavery; they never blinked. They never stuttered; they just backed me. In a way it was simple. But at the same time, one cannot underestimate the influence that President Barack Obama has had on all these recent films on African-American life.

HLG: Explain that ...

SM: Well, previously, people wanted to make these stories, but maybe now they thought they had the authority to. Also, now studios realized that they could make some money telling these stories. The fact that he’s the president can never be underestimated when it comes to the influence he’s had on culture, and particularly in film.

HLG: That’s something—President Obama’s implicit influence on the creation of culture. That’s not always noted.

SM: Oh, it’s huge. I guarantee you—well, I really strongly believe—that these films wouldn’t have been made if Obama wasn’t president.

HLG: How did you interest [producer] Brad Pitt in the project?

SM: Brad was in London and I was at the same time, and I went to see him. I told him what I wanted to do, and he was just down. You cannot have a better producer. He’s a cinephile, a great actor, a great producer. He was instrumental.

HLG: I was struck by the Pan-African diversity of the cast—African, African American, British. Was this something you consciously thought to do when casting the film, or did it just come about?