’12 Years a Slave’: The emotional reactions that make director Steve McQueen thankful — Q&A

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Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly interviews film director Steve McQueen.

Who’s afraid of 12 Years a Slave?

Not audiences — strong ticket sales at the box office have proven that. However, despite some passionate fans, many Academy voters have privately confessed to being intimidated by the drama, mostly because reviews have hyped the violence as extreme and relentless. Searing? Yes. Punishing for the audience? No more than, say,Saving Private Ryan or any other honest war picture.

In our latest issue, Entertainment Weekly named director Steve McQueen one of the Entertainers of the Year. That’s not a title one would obviously bestow on the soft-spoken British filmmaker, but “entertainment” means more than escapism. In his case, he’s one of the storytellers who simply moved people the most in 2013, bringing to the screen the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man who found himself trapped in a place where there was no such thing.

We asked him what he would say to people who say they are intimidated by the movie, and why he thinks this has been such a strong year for films about the black experience. What McQueen wanted to talk about was how grateful he was to those who have opened themselves up the movie.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has been the most memorable part about making 12 Years a Slave?

STEVE MCQUEEN: I think the most significant was the response from the public. It’s been quite moving and quite humbling, really. The way people have responded to the work, it’s about their own stories and how people are essentially a family — people are connected. That has been very inspirational for me.

Connected in what way?
There was this thing, and it was strange. In Toronto, a friend of our producer was waiting for the movie to start. He is a white guy, and he was sitting next to a black woman, who had been in the queue for over an hour to get in. They started chatting, and then the movie started, and just before the movie ended, he felt a hand slide across his hand. They held hands, and once the movie actually finished, they were in tears and consoling each other. It was just amazing — and not unusual. I’ve heard other stories like this and it tells us how much we are connected and how much we care for each other.

I was at that Toronto Film Festival screening. People were so emotional after the film that they weren’t talking. They were speechless. There wasn’t the usual gush of argument that you tend to find immediately after a festival film. 
I think people just want to have their five minutes — their moment of quiet. Again, there was this wonderful moment with Brad — Mr. Pitt said after we showed it in Toronto, ‘I think we all need a walk around the park,’ and I think he got it spot on.

Was the shooting of the film just a non-stop series of those speechless moments?
There were many, but one that was personal to me was when Patsey [a field slave played by Lupita Nyong’o] gets beaten and she’s lying down and her back is being tended to. Solomon sees her and they both have that moment — then Solomon has a tear that drops from his eye. After that happened, I said ‘cut,’ and I just walked out in to the fields to just have my five minutes. It was the only time that it actually got to me. To get what I wanted, I had to shut it off. Just like how Solomon got through a day.

When you make an uncompromising film about a disturbing subject, there are bound to be many who turn away. Have you experienced any of that? 
Well, I think that started early on when people — when this word ‘brutal’ was coming up every time in reviews of the movie.  What’s happened is the audience has responded to the film, you see it in the box-office [the film has earned $30.1 million so far.] The audience has responded to the film in an amazing way so, I supposed what I’m trying to say is that has not deterred them — far from it in fact. Where things are going, it’s grown from 19 cinemas to 410 cinemas, to 1,100 cinemas, and now to 1,400 cinemas. It just got better and better and better every time, every week.

I’ve spoken to quite a few Academy voters who feel intimidated by the film. Those who see it tend to be deeply moved, but some seem afraid to watch it, fearing it will be too unsettling. 
There haven’t been many slavery movies and if we don’t face our past, we as a people will never understand what possible future we have. And that’s what happens. A lot of people in the film of course, turn their back on slavery and don’t do anything about it. It’s about looking and it’s about being brave. There’s no bravery that needs to happen here by watching a movie, but it’s about acknowledging the most important part of American history.

What do you say to someone who is just scared off  by descriptions of the violence?
What I would say is that for me this film has always been about love. Through the worst kind of environment, my ancestors and people like me survived and they survived through love. They didn’t have much choice. They had to navigate their way through a circumstance in order to bring their children up. Some people were taken away from their parents, some were taken away from their mothers and fathers. But in all that chaos, there was a sense of hope and love and that’s what Solomon went through for 12 years in his journey. He held on to his sense of love and that sense of hope. That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you now, because my family went through that and I’m sitting here so the film is about love, absolutely more than anything else.

This has been an extraordinary year for films that don’t just happen to star black actors, or be made by black filmmakers – but are about the subject of race relations in America: 12 Years a SlaveThe Butler,Fruitvale Station, the Jackie Robinson story 42. Is this coincidence, or do you see some reason for this trend?
It helps when you’ve got exceptional filmmakers, but also the environment helps. I mean, I think the fact that there’s a black president absolutely has had a huge influence. When there isn’t a black president anymore, hopefully there are still these films. I think people felt they were allowed to — people felt they were empowered to make these films — I hope that continues.

But how does Barack Obama being president empower filmmakers to tell these stories? 
I think the influence of having a black president is bigger than one could imagine. Just his presence can have that kind of influence and that sort of authority allows you as a filmmaker to possibly have the authority to realize a work.

So you’d say Obama just naturally leads the culture to think more, or at least be more focused on the subject of race?
No matter who the president is, you need talented filmmakers to tell these stories and I think there are some — I mean, from Fruitivale, to The Butler …  These films have been exceptional because they are made by exceptional filmmakers.

These films have also been box office successes, which means they are connecting with many different people, not just one demographic or the other. 
I think you’re absolutely right. I will say that 12 Years a Slave is not an African-American movie — it’s not. It’s anAmerican movie. I think there’s a huge difference there.

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