’12 Years a Slave’ director Steve McQueen on the parallel lives of Anne Frank and Solomon Northup

“12 Years a Slave” based on the biography of Solomon Northup and directed by the British-born filmmaker Steve McQueen is the “Schindler’s List” of American slavery films. It portrays the horrors of America’s slave past in wrenching, pristine detail and has inspired a more robust discussion on the residual effects of the global slave era. The film has already received a spate of awards and is expected to receive several Oscar nominations. A few weeks ago, I met McQueen for lunch at his Los Angeles hotel where he discussed the impact of his film, its parallel to “The Diary of Anne Frank” and his own relationship to the history of slavery.

What was your upbringing like?

Steve McQueen: Working class. Happy. Hard working. Mother was a secretary, in a maternity hostile; father was a builder. We moved from inner city London to a suburb with lots of parks. The transition was possibly my salvation, to be perfectly honest, growing up in an area where you could go on your bike and cycle to a park rather than being in the inner city where it’s very congested and built up.

Did you always have artistic inclinations?

SM: I could always draw. As a child, I remember I drew my family and they put the banner up outside the local library in Shepherd’s Bush. Huge. I must find it one day. So that was my first exhibition; I was 5 years old.

Did your parents encourage your artistry?

SM: My mother, yes. My father was a little bit skeptical; my father said, “Get a trade.” My father was one of those people who didn’t really know what possibilities there were, and of course he was being very protective of me.

There’s a scene in “12 Years a Slave” when a mother is physically torn from her children as they are sold to separate slave owners. How do you bring relevant intention to a scene when you come from something very different?

SM: I come from that as well. I’m not blind to what’s around me neither. I had a happy childhood, but at the same time, when you’re five-years-old and you discover your background, your ancestors, and that how you came to be to some extent was through slavery, what it does is it actually makes you think about your society.

How were you introduced to your ancestry of slavery?

SM: That’s like asking someone, “When did you first know your name?” It was a strange norm because from a very early age you are forced to be aware of your political and social surroundings and your place in it.

Did you feel alienated as a child, or did you feel that all the possibilities of the world were open to you?

SM: I thought I could do anything. I grew up in an environment, at a time, in a country, when universities were free. Education was free. Of course there were other things, racial and so forth, but the idea was that there were all possibilities because education was free.

Growing up, what troubled you when you looked out at the world?

SM: When I was 13 years old, we went to high school, and what they would do [is] they would divide kids into houses. And within your house [it was determined that] you were gonna be, basically, manual labor, or you were going to be a person who was going to go further in education. So at 13-years-old, you’re marked. And I was marked as someone who was going to be doing manual labor. And I think I fell in love with art; I wasn’t very interested in school, but art was the thing that made me interested to learn.

Did you become a filmmaker because you wanted to change the world or because you identified as an artist and that’s all you knew how to do?

SM: I think once you’re an artist you have influence. And to some extent you have responsibility; either it is to entertain or educate. But both of those descriptions have responsibilities. Entertainment is not frivolous; through entertainment you can actually make people aware of things. And throughout the ages art has always had a huge influence on history. End of story.

Why do you say 'responsibility to some extent'?

SM: [Artists are] not politicians. No matter how serious you think you are, you’re an entertainer.

Is America finally ready to confront its slave past?

SM: Slavery was a horrendous, vile, horrific, disgusting time in history, and I understand why for so long, you know, people were embarrassed of that history. I understand. Absolutely. But now I think people are willing to sort of look at it seriously. It’s a very interesting time.

The Jewish framework for human catastrophe is the Holocaust. But your film is among the hardest I’ve ever watched. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many Holocaust films?

SM: With the Holocaust, it’s been recognized. People understand it, what it was. The strange thing about [discourse around] the Holocaust, for me, is: If you hate Jews or are anti-Semitic, and 6 million people died in the gas chambers, shouldn’t you be happy about that? But guess what? Humanity is so strong, morality is so strong, that it becomes so embarrassing for [anti-Semites] that they have to deny it. 

The poet Theodor Adorno once wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He claimed that such a catastrophe overwhelms conventional aesthetic mediums and renders them inadequate to convey the experience.

SM: It’s a problem I wish black people had. But we’re not even allowed to speak about [slavery] without saying, “Oh that was years ago. Come on, get over it.” That is a common thing you hear. “Get over it.” But the evidence of slavery is here right now: mental health, prison populations, education, crime, drug addiction, single parent families etc., etc., etc. It’s never been dealt with. It’s never been recognized. So that whole idea of people saying “No poetry?” I’ll use any tool I can to make people aware of it.

What will it take to memorialize slave history better?

SM: There’s a first monument in Washington — which is actually happening — which is tremendous. And also, people talking about it. If anyone should know about this, dealing with trauma, it should be people of the Jewish faith because they live with it. When I finished reading the book, “12 Years a Slave” it reminded me of Anne Frank’s diary immediately — and I live in Amsterdam. [Here were] two people who lived in a regime of terror, and [the books] were two first-hand accounts. I didn’t understand why I knew Anne Frank, but I didn’t know Solomon Northup. Solomon Northup is an American hero; all I wanted to do was shine a light on him so people would know who he was.