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 3 of their conversation, the two discuss why the hardest scenes to watch were important, and McQueen’s reaction to a Schindler’s List comparison.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Do you think that this year’s remarkable slate of films—Fruitvale, 12 Years a Slave, Many Rivers to Cross—are an aberration, or do they signal the start of a new chapter in black cinema and documentary?
Steve McQueen: I hope so, because there are thousands of stories to tell. No one knew who Solomon Northup was, and that story should be engraved in everyone’s head. How come there’s not a feature film about the Underground Railroad? They’re just amazing stories, as well as them being from the African-American experience. At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business, and these are amazing stories, period.
HLG: And they remain to be tapped?
SM: Yes, and of course Hollywood always wants to make money. But as long as they’re great stories and well told, brilliant.
HLG: I’d like to talk about your transition from making art films to feature films. Is there a tension between the narrative and the aesthetic?
SM: For me, art is like poetry and filmmaking is like the novel. I’m using the same words to say the same thing but saying them differently. With artworks, it’s more abstract, more fractured.
HLG: The body has always been central to your work, from naked wrestlers to exposed sex addicts in Shame to the flogged black body in 12 Years. What was your vision? Talk about the use of the body in your work.
SM: I think people overexaggerate that, but at the same time, I totally understand why. All we have is our bodies. That’s our vessel. But what I’m interested in is not necessarily that but the subjects that are around it. Shame is about sexual addiction and how the Internet fuels that addiction. Same thing with slavery. The story is about the environment, and how individuals have to make sense of it, how we locate the self in events. The body is used, but it’s a byproduct of the bigger question.
HLG: Now I’d like to know how you depicted the extreme and relentless scenes of cruelty. The potential too-much-ness of, for example, the lynching scene, and when Solomon beats Patsy. What political purpose does it serve?
SM: That picture of Solomon hanging there was, for me—it had to represent all the hundreds of thousands of people who were lynched. I had to do that because in some way it was representing those people who never had a name and who never had a grave. People talk about what happened, but when you visualize it, when you see it … I was very careful about how I brought that to the narrative.
There’s a subtlety that leads up to the crescendo of Patsy being whipped by Solomon. I had to do it because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror as an artist and not do it that way … I’m making a picture of what took place in those times, and if I didn’t do it justice, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself.
HLG: Talk about the tension between portraying the South as beautiful and conveying the horrors of slavery.
SM: People have said to me “It’s so beautiful,” and that’s because it is so beautiful. Horrific things happen in beautiful places. I can’t put a filter on life. Life is perverse. Just the other day I was taking my son to school on my bike, and two police cars and an ambulance zoomed past us. After dropping him off, I went to the café where I have my coffee every morning. They told me before I got there [that] a 7-year-old child was run over by a garbage truck … the father was there.
Life is perverse. It was a beautiful day. You had these beautiful plantations, but horrific things happen in the most beautiful places.
HLG: That’s a beautiful way to put it. And that’s a surprise to the audience. The scene with Solomon dangling from the tree and the scene where he was forced to beat Patsy were draining and disturbing to watch. What were the most draining and disturbing scenes for you and the cast?
SM: The rape scene [when Epps rapes Patsy] was very difficult … and again, like I said before, it was one of those things you had to do, and everyone trusted each other. Trust is the most important thing.
HLG: Do you think the beating scene was more powerful because a black man would be forced to beat a black woman?
SM: Yes, and most of the beatings were done by black people. It was all part of it … part of the psychological torture.
HLG: So, you don’t think the Patsy scene was too much? Some critics have said it’s too brutal to be seen.
SM: Either I was making a movie about slavery or I wasn’t, and I decided I wanted to make a movie about slavery.
HLG: And thank God you did. Let’s talk about the portrayal of Epps. Was it important to illustrate the complexity of white folks, masters?
SM: Yeah, the situation is that there were two victims: the perpetrator and the victim. One has to look, to some extent—don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult—at those people. They had a choice, while the slaves didn’t.
You think about Nelson Mandela recently passing away. He wanted to understand what was going on with whites as well as black people. Epps—yes, he’s horrible, disgusting, but—why is he in love with a slave? Of course, Patsy does not return that love at all. But it’s one of those things where he takes out his love for her by trying to destroy her.
HLG: Did you study earlier depictions in film of slavery?
SM: No. I just went into historical accounts. Did some research. Spoke to you. It was a case of sort of immersing myself in the history and that world.
HLG: 12 Years has been called the anti-Django. Do you think of it that way?
SM: No. I’m a huge admirer of [Quentin] Tarantino; it’s just different. One is action, adventure, comedy and one is drama. What’s important is that people are talking about and looking at that subject. I met Tarantino and [we talked about how] there can be more than one film about slavery, just like there’s more than one gangster movie or Western. In Django, for me, the Samuel L. Jackson character is such a complex character, and I was really hoping that Samuel L. Jackson would be sort of recognized in a way.
HLG: I agree. I had dinner with him recently and I told him the same thing … Do you think the audience more easily identifies with Solomon because of his earlier middle-class existence—free man captured, tricked and enslaved—than it would have had the story been of a man or woman born into slavery?
SM: Absolutely. And that’s what I was interested in. It was a man who was an American who was hardworking, was a musician and was fairly well-to-do. It is also a parallel to today. We can’t take our liberties and our freedoms for granted, because at any time it could be taken away. Look at Trayvon Martin, killed …
HLG: Let’s return for a second to the scene with Solomon dangling from the tree. Only one slave is brave enough to give him a draft of water. It’s a haunting scene. Do you see that as a metaphor for the African-American condition? Because in some ways we still have so many Americans strung up. Was that what was on your mind?
SM: I think what was more on my mind was what most of us do. It’s what we do. We don’t want to get involved. We walk by … it’s what we do. The whole movie in a way is a call to arms. There’s so much that we can do and should do.
HLG: So it was a call to arms, and I think audiences took away that message. I screened 12 Years a few times, once on Martha’s Vineyard, and my friend and colleague Alan Dershowitz was in the audience. He was so moved, and he said, “This is the African-American Schindler’s List.” Do you agree?
SM: It’s a compliment. All I can say is, I’m flattered if that’s the case.
HLG: What’s the most surprising reaction to the film?
SM: People say to me, “I never knew it was that bad!” I say it was worse. It was 100 times worse.
HLG: One hundred times worse, at least, without a doubt. I tell people that when they say they can’t see Patsy beaten. Can we expect a director’s cut?
SM: No, this is the cut I wanted. This is it.
HLG: One of our readers at The Root asked—the reconciliation scene was very powerful and provided much-needed relief for the audience. But for one reader it seemed short. Why not linger more on Solomon’s reunion with his family?
SM: Because the story goes on. And the thought I wanted them to leave with was what happened to Patsy and all the other millions of slaves.
HLG: That last look Patsy gives to Solomon is so sad. Just tore me up … Steve McQueen, what did you learn about yourself during the filming of 12 Years?
SM: That I thought I was strong. But I realized I was fragile.
HLG: How so?
SM: Because going into this journey, I thought I would be protected from the pain through the process of making [the film]. But that could only hold for so long, until my armor was pierced.
HLG: Were there moments when you cried?
SM: There was one situation, when Solomon and Patsy are in the room after the beating, and Patsy looks at Solomon and his reaction is, a tear drops from his eye. I saw what happened and I said, “Cut,” and I had to go for a little walk. That was the only time my defenses were penetrated as such.
I had my blinkers on. I was focused. The only interesting thing about all this stuff if evidence. The only thing that is interesting is the film. The book. The piece of literature you’re writing. It’s all about the evidence. So I had to put all my emotions and all of that to one side. I don’t even think about it. But at the end of the day I’m fragile. Because I’m human. That’s it.
HLG: And I think that that’s the take-away for members of your audience. The human condition means we’re vulnerable and fragile and we need each other.
SM: Absolutely. In the Declaration of Independence [is] the right to pursue happiness. If that’s not one of the most beautiful things in the world as a document for a country, I don’t know what is. It should be true for everyone.
HLG: Thank you, Steve McQueen.
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.