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year in culture 2013

Where It Hurts: Steve McQueen on Why 12 Years a Slave Isn’t Just About Slavery

Steve McQueen, photographed by Graeme Mitchell

Inside a cheap Thai restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall one evening a few weeks ago, I told the artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen I’d been nervous to meet him, based on what I’d read in the European press. He looked at me with a start.

McQueen had arrived in Los Angeles a week earlier from Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife and two children. Scheduled to appear later at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance for a Q&A following a screening of his film 12 Years a Slave, he’d been seized by a sudden hankering for Chinese food while we’d been riding to his hotel. His driver had suggested a restaurant, but it was no longer in business, and McQueen had spotted this place. When he’d realized he did not have a wallet on him, I’d offered to pay, which caused him to be concerned; he made me promise that it wasn’t my own money. At the table, he’d pulled out my chair for me. We were the only customers. Christmas lights blinked in the window. We’d each ordered curry, and when the young waitress came back to ask about the food, McQueen pointed at the B-grade health-inspector placard in the window, joking, in his hurried London accent, that it deserved an A.

It was late in the meal when I mentioned his reputation among other journalists. He held his chopsticks in his hand.

“What did they say?”

McQueen is 44 years old, tall and robust; he wore a T-shirt beneath a lightweight sport jacket and dark slacks and large black-rimmed glasses. He is exacting in his ideas, and sometimes struggles to communicate exactly what he’s thinking (he has occasionally borrowed reporters’ pens and paper to help him articulate his thoughts). He is full of energy.

“That I’m difficult?” he asked.

I rattled off some other descriptions: “curt,” “combative,” “volatile,” “scornfully dismissive,” “bullish,” “arrogant.” He pondered it a bit more. He asked whether I had an idea why this reputation exists. I told him I was more interested in his. “It’s journalists getting uppity, and when I get uppity, they write this.” It was an easy caricature: They expect him to be “from the ghetto,” he said, “to behave a certain way.”

“Excuse me for saying it,” he said, “but I suppose it’s because I’m black.”

On both counts, the critics are unanimous: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the greatest movie about slavery ever made. And Steve McQueen may well become the first black filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Director. For his part, ­McQueen is happy for the praise but does not see his movie as being “just about slavery.” Nor does he see himself, necessarily, as black.

“It’s a narrative about today,” he says of his film. “It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything.”

The germ of the idea came long ago, around the time he was making his first film, 2008’s Hunger, for which the actor Michael Fassbender literally starved himself to portray the excruciating hunger strike of IRA inmate Bobby Sands. McQueen knew then that he wanted to make a film about a free black American kidnapped into slavery. The story continued incubating as he made his next film three years later, the lushly bleak Shame, also starring Fassbender, this time as a tortured New Yorker addicted to sex. McQueen and his wife, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter, both work from home; when he needs a desk, he uses the kitchen table, though he does most of his work walking around the city or riding his bike or Hoovering their narrow home. He discussed his idea with Stigter, who suggested he base the film on a true story and who discovered Twelve Years a Slave, a nineteenth-­century best seller long out of print. One of only 192 books written by former slaves, it carries the extraordinary subtitle Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. The story is so astonishing that McQueen likens it to science fiction. “People think they know slavery,” he says. “Often it’s the case they don’t.”

“As soon as I had it in my hands,” he says, “I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.” The idea he had drummed up “was in my hands virtually in script form.” He asked the writer John Ridley to adapt it; McQueen says that 80 percent of the dialogue is lifted from the book. Brad Pitt had seen Hunger and long wanted to work with McQueen. His production company, Plan B Entertainment, agreed to help finance 12 Years a Slave, with Pitt cast in a small role near the end of the film. (Pitt’s reverence for the project is religious: “If I never get to participate in a film again,” he’s said, “this is it for me.”) With his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen shot the film with one camera and in 35 days, drawing inspiration from the Louisiana setting, where “everything was new: the heat, the crickets, the mosquitoes—it was like going to a prehistoric land.” McQueen took seriously his role as patriarch, in order to allow the cast to “make mistakes and then make bigger mistakes,” resulting in a shoot he describes as “joyous.” “We were a family,” he says. “We ate together. We drank together after the shoots. It moves me, gives me goose pimples thinking about it.” Fassbender told me that the level of focus on set was so high “you could almost hear it humming.”

It was afternoon, still over 90 degrees, and McQueen and I were sitting in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum was closed to the public, but it had made an exception for McQueen, whose fine art is part of the permanent collection. He was interested in seeing a retrospective of the work of the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who had filmed more than 200 movies over 50 years, working with John Huston, John Ford, and Fernando de Fuentes; Diego Rivera called him the “fourth muralist.” On giant screens hung like paintings, we watched looping montages of his breathtaking black-and-white shots: from close-ups that read as studies of the human face to sweeping landscapes shot low so that the sea or hills or clouds came billowing outward. McQueen was entranced. “People talk about high definition and stuff,” he said. “It’s as much about things which aren’t seen. This is the crossover, isn’t it? This is art and film. Beautiful.”

I’d seen 12 Years the night before, at the huge cineplex in downtown L.A. My friend sobbed quietly through a good portion of it. At least one black couple left midway. As we walked out of the ­theater, no one seemed to be speaking; breaking the ice, one stranger next to me said, “Well, that was intense,” which made us all laugh anxiously. As we stared at the Figueroa clips, I told McQueen how much I admired the film, and how it made me think about nihilism. He was having none of this. We made our way quickly to the courtyard outside the museum, where a lively conversation ensued.

He stammered and stuttered, organizing his thoughts. “The world is perverse,” he conceded; it is “chaotic.” Still: “Within that, one is always trying to find that calm, that focus. That’s why we have societies. It drives some sort of structure within that sort of environment.” Slavery was not proof of senselessness. It was about “money and power obviously, and within that you get human suffering.” But goodness overwhelms. “The only reason I’m here talking to you,” he said, “is because my family held on to that love, even if it sounds corny.”

As far as the film was concerned, though, I wondered if the takeaway could be darker. The climactic moment when Northup abruptly wins his freedom, only to leave behind the other slaves to face a life of interminable, hellish suffering—his final embrace with the young slave girl Patsey: What was the viewer to make of that? Wasn’t that simply devastating?

“It’s totally devastating,” McQueen said. “Yes, we don’t have too much control over too much of our circumstances. But what we can do, we have to do. What we can do we have to do. That’s it.”

McQueen is confident that his interpretations are correct; he once said that what makes him most depressed is “being misunderstood.” He was disinclined to discuss overarching themes or preoccupations in his work, though he conceded that in all his films, violence, or at least suffering—he settled on “imprisonment”—plays a significant role. To McQueen, debasement is a necessary condition for sympathy, which he finds much more interesting. For instance, he feels sympathy toward the plantation owner Edwin Epps, played diabolically by Fassbender, whose attention Patsey has the misfortune of attracting. This confused me.

“The person I have the most sympathy for and most empathy for, of course, is Patsey,” McQueen clarified. “But I have huge sympathy for Epps because he’s in love with Patsey. The funny thing about love: You can’t choose love. Love chooses you.” Does it matter that Patsey is not in love with Epps? That he is her captor and rapist? “Epps is a human being,” McQueen said. “And as much as we want to think of him as a monster, as a devil, he’s not.”

Fassbender told me that McQueen “loves human beings,” even terrible ones. “The great thing about Steve, in terms of looking at characters and telling stories, is that he doesn’t judge any of it. It all is what it is. Through observation you try to gain some kind of understanding, as opposed to judgment.” He calls McQueen’s approach “almost journalistic.”

The use of violence, McQueen wanted me to know, was “a surgical exercise.” By his recollection, there are just six instances in the film. He began counting them on his fingers. “There’s Solomon getting beaten for the first time. One person being killed on the boat, stabbed to death. What else is there? After that, there’s the hanging. The lynching in the woods. The bottle impacts his face—”

“The scratching of Patsey’s face?” I offered, referring to when Epps’s jealous wife digs her nails down Patsey’s cheek.

He looked at me with surprise. “Really?” he asked. “The scratching?”

It had struck me as one of the most horrible things I’d seen on film.

He paused. “Then maybe there’s about seven,” he said. “So there are seven or so in a movie which lasts two hours and ten minutes.” Some were “minor in the context of what we see today.”

He understands that this was a specific kind of violence, of course. “As a filmmaker, I needed to see the lash on the back,” he said. “I needed to see the psychological effect afterward. If I hadn’t done that, I would have done a disservice, because that evidence had to be shown. The lynching had to be the best it could be done. Because that happened to hundreds of thousands of people. As someone whose ancestors experienced that, I needed to do that the way I did it.”

Only once had the emotional weight of the subject overwhelmed him. They were shooting the scene following Patsey’s beating, when she’s being tended to by the other slaves. “She lifts her head up and she sees Chiwetel [Ejiofor, who plays Northup],” McQueen recalled, “and she weeps and cries. And there’s acknowledgment, I suppose, that I asked you to kill me and now this. And we cut to Chiwetel acknowledging her gaze, and then Chiwetel cries. This tear just drops from his face out of nowhere. I said, ‘Cut! I have to go for a walk.’” He paused, then repeated himself. “I had to go for a walk.”

Two museum employees—an administrator and a maintenance worker—approached him to say how much they love his work. He was exceedingly, indefatigably gracious. He touched each of their shoulders, mumbling, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“You’re very kind,” he told them.

Then he wondered whether I was interested in going for a ride. There was a place he liked visiting that he wanted to show me.

Nyong’o and Fassbender.

Our SUV waded through traffic en route to Mulholland Drive. Inside the cavernous gray leather interior, McQueen joked, “It feels a bit like Cinderella. And when twelve o’clock comes, no more drivers, no more limos, baby.”

Another magazine had recently characterized McQueen’s career as an artist in a way that made him sound, he said, like “an upper-class snob.” He thinks this might be because of the way Americans think about art, that “something gets lost in translation.” He is proud of his ­working-class background—for a time he’d worked in a supermarket and as a paperboy—and the artwork he’s made he equates with punk rock.

He was born in London in 1969. His parents had each arrived in London in the sixties in the midst of an immigrant influx, his mother originally from Trinidad, where her ancestors had been brought from Ghana, and his father from Grenada, where his family had been farmers. She found work as a secretary at Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital, he as a bricklayer, and they met in the same West Indian community. When McQueen’s father was a young man, he’d traveled to Florida to work a season picking oranges. One night, he and two Jamaicans set off for a nearby bar. “And when they entered,” McQueen told me, “it was like a Western bar door opened. Everyone looked up.”

One of the Jamaican men attempted to order some drinks. The bartender replied: “We don’t serve niggers.”

“That’s okay,” said the Jamaican, reaching for a bottle, “we’ll serve ourselves.” He struck the bartender with it.

McQueen’s father and the Jamaicans fled. A chase ensued in which both Jamaicans were shot to death. His father lay alone in a ditch in the dark, waiting for the white men to disperse. McQueen heard about this for the first time seven years ago, when his father was dying.

“True story,” McQueen told me. “True story.”

As we continued climbing the hills, the houses seemed to grow larger, and Hispanic laborers blurred by, trimming blossoming roses and wisteria and shaping hedges. Onto one mansion they were stringing holiday lights.

When he was still very young, McQueen’s mother moved the family to a suburb called Ealing. It was an international environment—black, white, Iranian, Pakistani, Italian, Portuguese—which he found stimulating, culturally and creatively if not academically. Years later, he returned to his primary school, having been asked to bestow student-achievement awards. He felt some measure of rapprochement when the headmaster acknowledged the school had been, during McQueen’s time, not only institutionally racist but also institutionally classist. This was something McQueen had always known. “They told me I was right,” he says.

From an early age, he’d decided he wanted to be a professional artist. “Drawing saved me,” he says. (When he was a child, he drew a banner featuring his family that was hung outside a local library.) His mother was only encouraging; his father wished him to “get a trade.” McQueen attended the Chelsea College of Arts and the prestigious Goldsmiths College. It was at Goldsmiths, at the end of his first year, that he began helping out in an area where some filmmaking equipment was stored. “A technician lent me a Super 8 camera,” he recalls. “And that was it. I was hooked.” The movies were foreign to him—his family had watched only television—but he was searching for new mediums of expression. He was also in love with a girl who was in love with cinema.

He enrolled at NYU’s Tisch school. It went badly. “I’d been raised in the art-school practice of experimenting and finding language and such, and film school to a certain extent was military,” he says. He describes the experience as if “someone was loading my hand and forcing me to shoot.” Three months in, he was lying in his bedroom in Brooklyn, on the phone with his mother back in England, crying. He calls his decision to leave NYU and return to England the hardest he ever made—“the sacrifice to get there was huge”—though he now talks about the least certain moment of his adult life with total certainty. “I was correct,” he says.

With his video camera, he threw himself into his art, making experimental nonnarrative pieces. His first major work, a nine-minute silent video titled Bear, from 1993, features two naked black men, one of them McQueen, exchanging a series of difficult-to-read glances—threats? Flirtations?—that culminate in wrestling. In another, Five Easy Pieces, he urinates on a camera lens. The work found its way into reputable galleries, and a buzz began around him. Then came the “fever-pitched” madness of the Turner Prize. I asked him why he thought that happened. “I think it’s ’cause of Tracey Emin’s bed,” he said bluntly.

There is nothing in the U.S. even approximating the Turner Prize, an annual sensation awarded since 1984 to a British visual artist under the age of 50. From the announcement of the four nominees to the awarding of the winner several months later, the artists become national celebrities, with the British press whipping up every possible controversy around them and their frequently incendiary works. First asked to become a nominee in 1997, McQueen declined. “I was the new, hot kid, as such,” he recalls. “I needed to develop.” When he was invited again in 1999, he agreed. His contributions included Deadpan, a silent, evocative restaging of the old Buster Keaton stunt, in which McQueen survives a house collapsing around him by standing in the exact spot where an open window falls. The show was dominated, however, by Emin, the bookies’ favorite, and her cult of infamous personality. Her piece—titled My Bed, literally her unmade, stained bed along with a used condom, panties, and cigarette containers—took on a life of its own, with two other artists engaging in a half-naked pillow fight atop it inside a Tate gallery (Charles Saatchi ultimately bought it for £150,000). But it was McQueen’s work that won. He now says he has no feelings about Emin “at all.” What about some of her quotes afterward? “Quotes about me?” he asked. He wanted to know what she’d said. I paraphrased her public prediction that she was the one people would continue talking about.

“Well, she can have it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I prefer that. I’m uninteresting. I just hope my work is interesting.”

It has become common for Turner Prize winners to minimize its import later, or even regret their participation altogether. McQueen shared that opinion for some time but now recognizes how it helped his career: “Doors opened.” He was contacted by Channel 4 about making a feature film. Ever since he was 11 years old, watching the news coverage of Bobby Sands, he’d been ruminating on the hunger strike and the idea of control, about how “as a child, the only time you have control is when you’re eating.” Over the years, he’d debated mediums but kept coming back to its being a feature film. (“The artworks,” he says, “they’re totally separate, like writing poetry. The feature film is like the novel.”) Channel 4 secured the bulk of Hunger’s roughly £1.5 million budget. The first time McQueen stepped on a movie set was his first day of shooting.

We were at the top of Mulholland then, standing outside. The valley stretched out below us. The sun had fallen behind the western hills; the light was purely yellow. McQueen had come to this spot one night after finishing 12 Years a Slave, with Ejiofor and Fassbender. We talked about his first encounter with Fassbender, when he’d come in to read for the part of Sands, in London. It went fine, but neither Fassbender nor McQueen seemed to know quite how much was appropriate for Fassbender to give in an audition. McQueen invited him back a second time. “And it was just amazing,” McQueen said. After offering him the part, McQueen climbed aboard Fassbender’s motorcycle, zooming to Fassbender’s friend’s bar, near Leicester Square. “I’d never been on a fucking motorcycle before,” McQueen recalled, laughing. “We got drunk and had a good laugh. We just immediately bonded.” I wondered what that bond was about. McQueen struggled. He began choking up. “I just love him,” he said. “You know when you’ve got someone and they understand you and you understand them? It’s like love—you don’t choose it. Someone comes into that world with you and you each raise your game. It’s wonderful. It’s a rare thing.” A hawk soared over us, gliding. McQueen caught his breath, tracking a finger across the sky with it, like a camera. Far, far below, a swimming-pool light flickered on.

He turned to me. “It’s an honor to be here right now,” he said.

McQueen and Ejiofor.

The next night, McQueen was participating in another Q&A for 12 Years, this one for the Screen Actors Guild, at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. It was not just promotion but also a kind of long-standing awards-­season campaigning that’s become nearly as wearying and sophisticated as the presidential one. Several theaters were being used for industry screenings. As we arrived, Joel and Ethan Coen rode another escalator to the second floor, on their way to a Q&A of their own.

In an open-air bar nearby, we met Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as Patsey marks her feature-film debut; both are favorites for Oscar nominations. So is Fassbender, who was away shooting a film and no longer inclined to participate in such campaigning anyway (“I’m not a politician,” he’s said; “I’m an actor”). As for McQueen’s participation, his working-class roots seem to inform his thinking. “If someone’s gonna give me an award,” he told me about the Turner, “I’ll take it.” He does not believe in outsiderness in art or in life. “There’s only in. If you say you’re out—well, actually, you’re in. So what can you do within those circumstances to use it as your advantage?”

Now McQueen appeared somewhat nervous. The three entered the theater as the credits were finishing and huddled together against a wall, McQueen wrapping his arms around his actors. As the audience stood in applause, they were introduced by Scott Feinberg, who was covering the awards season for The Hollywood Reporter and moderating this panel. Nyong’o received a roaring ovation.

Even for an audience of industry people, the subject of filmmaking technique felt inappropriately small, and many of Feinberg’s questions were personal—how McQueen and his actors related to the movie, how they identified as black. They each said they’d been shocked that they hadn’t known Northup’s story before making the movie. McQueen invoked Anne Frank, a “global hero” whose house and museum he lives near, and whose diary was mandatory reading for him in school in England. “I scratched my head,” he told the audience. “Why do I know Anne Frank but I don’t know Solomon Northup?”

After first receiving the script, Ejiofor said, the significance of the role, of “trying to tell the story of slavery,” weighed heavily on him. Filled with self-doubt, Ejiofor said, he “was like, ‘Wait a second …’ ”

“You didn’t say, ‘Wait a second,’” McQueen interjected. “You said no.”

But Ejiofor returned to Northup’s memoir and tried to strip some of the historical context from his mind. He realized that the story was “not about the struggle for freedom, but the struggle for life.”

It wasn’t until Nyong’o, who grew up in Kenya, saw The Color Purple that she realized “people that looked like me” could be actors. She enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, and shortly before graduation her manager received the 12 Years script for another client and suggested Nyong’o for the part of Patsey. Two weeks later, she was in New Orleans with McQueen.

The search, McQueen added, was reminiscent of the notorious casting of Scarlett O’Hara. They’d seen more than 1,000 potential Patseys. The problem, McQueen said, was that “actors of color don’t get to train.” When he’d received Nyong’o’s audition video over e-mail, he’d called his wife over to confirm what he was seeing. In New Orleans, they first rehearsed the scene that leads to Patsey’s whipping. Nyong’o was terrified. When they were finished, Fassbender turned to her. “You are my peer,” he said.

“Thank you for being born,” McQueen told her.

Did it strike them as odd, Feinberg wondered, that none of them was American, though they were making a quintessentially American film?

Ejiofor, who is British, said that shortly before they’d begun shooting he was wrapping up a film in Nigeria, where his ancestors were from. He’d visited the slave museum, experiencing “the roll call of hundreds of thousands of people.” “As soon as I had consciousness,” he said, “I was aware of that history.”

Nyong’o said that had she been born 150 years earlier, her fate very likely would have been Patsey’s. “I’m implicated in slavery just by the virtue of the color of my skin,” she said.

McQueen responded somewhat sharply: “The only difference between myself and an African-American is that their boat went right and my boat went left.”

A few days later, McQueen and I met in New York, and we took a walk around a freezing Soho, chasing sunlight. He was about to have a short break ahead of the international releases, which were timed to maximize awards-season buzz, part of the plan by the distributor to overcome Europeans’ supposed uninterest in so-called black films. Even though he finds this terminology meaningless and offensive—and is confident the film will perform well ­overseas—he is willingly, even joyfully, involved in the rollout. Over the weekend, he’d attended the Governors Awards in Hollywood, where Angelina Jolie was being honored for her humanitarianism. The night before, he’d attended a screening and Q&A, at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, sponsored by Harry Belafonte and a charity he funds.

McQueen was in exceptionally high spirits. “The conversation has been so stimulating,” he said, referring to the dialogue the film was sparking. “Somebody said to me, ‘This movie’s more important than you,’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ ” Belafonte had said to him, “All these years in Hollywood, this is the film that I’ve never seen and wanted to make myself.” Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, were also at the screening. De Blasio thanked him for making the movie; McCray stood beside her husband silently, seeming, McQueen said, “a bit stunned.”

McQueen walks deliberately and is slightly duckfooted; he wore a very thick black scarf wound several times around his neck, which he struggled to keep wrapped in the wind. I wondered if he felt things would be different in the wake of 12 Years a Slave, whether he’d have more offers.

“Yes and no,” he said. “They want commercial movies, whatever that is. I mean, when I made 12 Years a Slave, the last thing I was thinking was making money. When the word ‘commercial’ comes up in a sentence with these people, it throws me a bit because I don’t know what it means.”

“Usually it means stupid,” I offered.

“No,” he said. Then, “Yes. It means dumbing down.”

He is happy to leave the blockbusters to “other people who can do it better than me” and does not want to become one of those directors who “want Hollywood too bad.” “Will I be tempted at one point?” he asked himself. “Maybe I will. At the same time I think I’ve got a little advantage: I came from an environment, as an artist, where film was always seen as art.” He did not need “two cars, a bigger house. I’ve got good people around me. And my wife don’t take no shit.”

There’s a sweetness to McQueen that exists alongside his exactingness. He does not suffer stupid particularly well, but he appears to have mellowed with age—and with the recognition he’s accumulated over the years and especially now. He clearly enjoys occupying his perch as an outsider operating inside, or an insider operating outside. He is capable of developing a nonlinear project for HBO, and also of creating art films like his exceptional Gravesend, a descent into deep trenches in the Congo used to extract coltan, a mineral found in most modern electronics. To make it, McQueen and his cameraman arrived on a plane whose wings clipped the trees as they landed. They’d hired armed guards and guides to lead them to the mine deep in the rain forest. They had only a few hours to film, in extreme conditions, and upon their return to the base camp, a guide declared they had to flee: Word of their presence (and that whites were among them) had spread to guerrilla fighters. Thrashing through the jungle, McQueen believed they would die. “It affected me in a serious way,” he recalls. “You walk through villages, you see a woman: This is how she exists. And then the fact that within a certain amount of hours I was back in the West, walking down the street. It’s like, wow. It’s like time travel.”

I asked him one last question: Had the experience of making the film affected the way he thought of himself as a black man? He spent the better part of the next fifteen minutes fashioning his answer.

“Look, first and foremost, I’m a human being,” he said. He was adamant that neither he nor his film be ghettoized. “I could make a film tomorrow about white women having a dinner party in Connecticut, because I’m a part of that just as much as I’m a part of Solomon Northup,” he said. He asked if he could amend his response and replace Connecticut with Devon, England. When he’d made Hunger, people had wondered why he’d be interested in Bobby Sands. This offended him: Sands was a huge part of his childhood thinking and, therefore, “he was a part of me.” He said, “Whatever stereotype people want to put on blackness or what being black is, I couldn’t tell you.” He found my question “very odd, actually.”

A minute later, as we were talking about something else, he asked me to ask him the same question again. “It’s a very good question,” he said this time. He’d had no idea, when making this film, how important it would become. It was “a pebble that you throw into a lake; and the ripples are happening.” So many people, after seeing the movie, had told him that they’d never truly understood how bad slavery was. There was the woman who stood up at a Q&A in Florida to reveal that her grandfather had been poisoned for teaching black children to read in the mid-twentieth century. In the history of cinema, he said, there have been fewer than twenty movies made about slavery. “You can’t really call that a fucking genre, can you?” he asked. 12 Years a Slave, he noted, was so far “the best-critiqued film of the year, and not within the genre of slavery, within the genre of cinema.” It was like “a dog whistle. It causes things to erupt. It evokes. It’s visceral. It’s an eruption of feeling.” At another Q&A, someone had put a hand up to thank him “for making a movie about something.” He was struggling with the question, he said, because he was still trying to figure it out.

“There’s so much pain,” he said finally.

*This article originally appeared in the December 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Graeme Mitchell/New York Magazine; Graeme Mitchell/New York Magazine; Francois Duhamel; Jaap Buitendijk