A Black Brit Looks at American Slavery

Steven Rodney McQueen’s critically-acclaimed directorial debut, Hunger, won the Camera d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. He followed that up with the incendiary offering Shame, a well-received, thought-provoking drama about addiction and secrecy in the modern world.

Steve and his wife, cultural critic Bianca Stigter, live and work in Amsterdam which is where they are raising their son, Dexter, and daughter, Alex. Here, he talks about his latest film, 12 Years a Slave, which recently won the People’s Choice Awards for best film and best director at the Toronto Film Festival.

Kam Williams: Hi Steve. Thanks for honoring me with the opportunity to interview you.
Steve McQueen: Thanks so much for the interest, Kam.

KW: I’ve loved all three of your feature films, this new one, and Hunger and Shame as well. They are so different from each other and yet quite remarkable and memorable, each in their own way.
SM: Thank you. Well, I do my best. I’m just happy that people are responding to the films as positively as they are. To be honest with you, it’s one of those things where we’re just happy to get them made. When you get to make something, you always hope people will go and see it. And we’re very, very pleased by the response to 12 Years a Slave. It’s kind of humbling and remarkable.

KW: What does it mean to you to be in charge of adapting Solomon Northup’s memoir? How do you explain that his autobiography was buried for around a hundred years contrary to those of some of his contemporaries like Frederick Douglass?
SM: Solomon Northrup’s story was buried for so long. When the book first came out in 1853, it was a phenomenal best seller for its time, and sold 27,000 copies in 18 months. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the following year, and that was it for 12 Years a Slave. It fell into obscurity.  Academics knew about the memoir but it otherwise became lost.

KW: In a film described as a historical drama, how do you establish a healthy balance between history and drama?
SM: As a filmmaker I was interested in illustrating the history of what slavery was about, which was slave labor. So, at the same time you’re following Solomon’s adventure of trying to get home, in the background you simultaneously see the horrors and pains of what slavery was about.

KW: What interested you as a Brit in an African-American story?
SM: The story’s not just an African-American story. It’s a universal story. It’s a world story. My parents are from the West Indies. My father’s from Grenada which is where Malcolm X’s mother was born. My mother was born in Trinidad which is where Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the phrase “Black Power!” was born. Sidney Poitier was born in the Bahamas. I’m part of that diaspora of people displaced by the slave trades. I’m part of that family. It’s our story. It’s a global story.

KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
SM: World peace. It might sound corny, but that’s the truth.

KW: How do you want to be remembered?
SM: As a person who tried.

KW: Thanks again for the time, Steve, and best of luck with the film.
SM: Thank you. Take care, Kam.

To see a trailer for 12 Years a Slave, visit:

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A Black Brit Looks at American Slavery


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