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.

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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.

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HLG: So you started with the concept, and there was old Solomon Northup 150 years ago, and he fit the bill?

SM: Absolutely.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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?

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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.