Editor’s note: You can read part 1 of this conversation here.
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 2 of their conversation, the two discuss the lasting effects of slavery and McQueen’s belief that it’s time for official apologies from leaders around the world.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: What surprised you most in translating Solomon Northup’s story as he narrated and wrote it from the page to the screen?
Steve McQueen: Seeing the images. All I wanted to do was see those images. That has always been the power for me. Seeing those images. When I read the book, I wanted to see those images. Slavery is like the elephant in the room, and what you do is sprinkle flour over it and make it visible. We have to confront this topic in a real way. No one’s blind anymore. No excuses. That’s the power of cinema.
HLG: Why do you think the West is blind to the elephant in the room? Is it only the West or is it everywhere?
SM: It’s the embarrassment of slavery and what went down. There’s never been anything like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the effects of slavery are all around us. You can be blind, but you can’t be stupid. Look around us. In education. In prison populations. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That’s the evidence of what happened.
One can say, “It was 100-odd years ago, get over it!” OK, let’s get over it. But things have to be put in place for us to get over it. We’re talking about 400 years of slavery and mental torture. So guilt isn’t productive. I’m not interested in guilt. But something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It wasn’t perfect, but at least there was some kind of acceptance. Of course the people who did it aren’t here anymore, so there’s no use talking about guilt. And you even had Africans selling African. I know some presidents who have apologized for that …
HLG: Yes, the president of Benin actually got on his knees at the altar at a church in the U.S. and asked for forgiveness.
SM: Yes, and a president of Ghana has apologized as well. When has a U.S. president ever apologized? How do we go forward? It’s time for the U.S., it’s time for the British, it’s time for the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, et cetera, to apologize.
HLG: Yes, and perhaps the airing of 12 Years a Slave will be the first step. What about your opinion of African Americans? Do you feel making this film helped you understand them better?
SM: I’ve always had a connection with African-American culture. I remember looking at Michael Jordan, black sportsmen, and saying, “Wow, people are equal over there.” I remember coming to America in 1977 to visit my family. I’ve always had that connection with America.
But the thing that shocked me about America for black Americans is education. I was so lucky in that way, being brought up in the U.K. But only for this reason: We had free education, so everyone to some extent—obviously it’s not perfect—at least had a shot.
What I love about black people is that there’s a certain connection immediately … it’s natural. There’s a connection without even trying … there is something that is intrinsically common. No water, no continent, no country, can separate that.
HLG: You know, we’re all black. We’re all products of our specific time, place, circumstances and cultures. Do African-American filmmakers have certain blind spots, inhibitions and perceptual habits that a black British filmmaker has?
SM: I don’t think so, no. I hope not. I wouldn’t dare say that.
HLG: Do you think being English was an advantage or disadvantage in making the film?
SM: I must say no. I don’t think it adds an advantage. My education was my advantage. I was allowed to go to university and study for free. I didn’t pay. The only difference between me and an African-American filmmaker was that at a certain stage of my life, I had free education. Free, free, free! I had possibilities where I think a lot of African Americans had limitations.
HLG: Do you think you had more distance on the subject? It’s so hard for us on this side of the Atlantic to think about slavery without wanting to scream, to point fingers, to feel guilty about what our ancestors went through. But do you think being British gives you that aesthetic distance that all art demands?
SM: No, it’s not who you are. It’s like James Brown said, I think: It’s not who you are, it’s where you’re at. And my parents are from the West Indies, where slavery was particularly brutal.
Editor’s note: You can read part 3 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.