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.

Director Steve McQueen arrives at the premiere of 12 Years a Slave at the Directors Guild on Oct. 14, 2013, in Los Angeles.
Director Steve McQueen arrives at the premiere of 12 Years a Slave at the Directors Guild on Oct. 14, 2013, in Los Angeles. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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.

Directed by Steve McQueen, with an adapted screenplay by John Ridley, 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 1 of the conversation, the two discuss Pan-African diversity among cast members and the unexpected role that President Barack Obama played in exposing the nation to Northup’s story.

Henry Louis Gates Jr: How did you discover the Solomon Northup story?

Steve McQueen: What happened was that, from the beginning, I wanted to tell a story about slavery. I just felt there was a hole in the canon of cinema. Also, I sometimes feel that slavery has disappeared from the discussion, that it’s not looked at in a way that it is deemed important. I wanted to take a look again, and I had an idea of a free man—a free African American who gets kidnapped into slavery, and that’s where I got stuck. After that, I met John Ridley and had a conversation with him about this original idea, but things weren’t going so well … That’s when my wife said to me, “Why don’t you look into firsthand accounts of slavery?”

HLG: So we have your wife to thank?

SM: Yes. With 12 Years a Slave, every page was a revelation. When I first read it, I felt so angry and upset with myself. Why didn’t I know this book? Then I realized no one I knew knew this book. I had to make this into a film. So it became my passion.