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: It just came about. I’m happy for it, but these were the best persons for the job, and that was it. It was a beautiful sort of group. We had African American, we had Irish, German ... we had the mix. It was beautiful.

HLG: I don’t think there’s ever been a more diverse cast, and I applaud you for it. What was the most difficult day of shooting?

SM: Every day was emotionally draining. The concentration was so high. You could hear the buzzing in your ears because the concentration was so great. When we got home at night, we were exhausted. So keeping concentration was hardest thing. But what helped us was the crew, from hair and makeup [to] catering, camera, sound, electricians, grips.

It was our film. We were making our film. People were free to experiment, to speak, to find things in their performances. [When that happens] it becomes a real kind of honor to be there making the film.

Editor’s note: You can read part 2 of this conversation here.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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