Interview: 12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen – On ’12 Years A Slave,’ His ‘Brand,’ His ‘Blackness’ & More

Interview: 12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen - On '12 Years A Slave,' His 'Brand,' His 'Blackness' & More

It’s been about 4 weeks since I saw Steve McQueen‘s much-ballyhooed drama 12 Years A Slave, and also about the same amount of time since I interviewed him. It’s a film that I intend to see a second time, if only to compare my reactions (to the film, as well as the reactions others have had) to the first time I saw it – reactions (certainly not all of them) that I shared during my conversation with McQueen, which led to one or two somewhat contentious exchanges, a little of which you will read in the interview below.

We’ve long been fans of Mr McQueen’s work, since his feature film debut – the provocative, unsettling, avant-garde Hunger – and have become enamored with his pragmatic, candid ways – especially when dealing with the press. But it’s one thing to observe this phenomenon from a distance, and quite another to experience it firsthand, which I had the pleasure of doing 5 Sundays ago at the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan, where the New York City press junket for 12 Years A Slave was held.

Ahead of the interview, despite the fact that I’d only been allotted 10 minutes with McQueen (about standard for junkets), being fully aware of what I was potentially up against – knowing that I was (and likely still am) in the minority, when I felt then (and still do feel now) that praise for the film has been excessive, and also being cognizant of his temperament – it was clear to me that I had to be well-prepared, given that I would be asking a few questions that would likely be considered criticisms of the film and the filmmaker. I usually am well-prepared for interviews, but, I’d readily admit that, this time, I wanted to be beyond ready. It’s called respect.

Unfortunately, given that a healthy percentage of our 10 minutes (although it would eventually be 12 minutes) was spent in dispute over some of my claims, I didn’t get to ask every single question I had for Mr McQueen.

But an interesting conversation it most certainly was – although it’s been cleaned up a bit, if only for clarity. For example, there were several situations in which our words overlapped, and it’s a challenge to convey the energy of those moments in print, and capture the body language, facial expressions, etc, which contributed significantly to the spirit of the conversation. But this is an interview transcript after all, not a screenplay.

TAMBAY OBENSON (TO): The one thing that really stuck out to me about the film is the passage of time which I didn’t quite notice. I think I wanted to feel that 12 years pass, and really feel the weight of the oppression suffered over those 12 years. But, the way the film progressed, and maybe I just missed some cues, it almost felt like it played over just a matter of weeks or even days, as opposed to 12 long years. And Like I said, maybe I missed some cues, but I really wanted to feel the oppression over that lengthy passage of time, and not necessarily anything overt. 

STEVE MCQUEEN (SM): [short silence] You’re the first person to ask me that question. You know, I think I’ve done that job. I’m not interested in having a situation where you tick off one year, or two years, or three years, and by the time you get to four, you’re thinking, oh my God, there’s 8 more years left in the movie. That does a disservice to the narrative. That’s for other filmmakers to do if they want to do it. But for me, I needed to tell the time passing on the physicality of someone, on the familiarity of things in the movie that he was doing. Therefore, when you’re invested in the story, these things come about. It becomes too much of a device that doesn’t benefit the narrative. What I was interested in doing is having a dynamic narrative. 
TO: I just noticed at the end when he is finally reunited with his family – that’s only when I realized that it had indeed been 12 years…
SM: Well, that’s just not sophisticated. Putting onto the screen every single year…
TO: I think you misunderstand me. Not that specific. Like I said, nothing overt. Some subtle indications of this passage of time so that one actually feels the weight of 12 long years of oppression. So, no, not ticking off every single year… But, it’s slavery era USA, and 12 years have passed from the beginning to the end of the film, and I wanted to feel the weight of oppression of time, and, I just didn’t feel that.
SM: The subtle indication is filmmaking. I rely on filmmaking to tell me those kinds of stories, how, if you’re invested in the story, you become familiar with what they’re doing, how their faces age. How, for example, you’ve got Solomon running to Ms Shaw’s house, saying “Ms Shaw, Master Epps is looking for Patsey, you’ve got to come now.” Obviously he’s more familiar at that point. So it’s a more sophisticated way of showing the passage of time, rather than ticking a box. For me that wouldn’t have been stimulating at all. 
TO: Again, to be clear, I’m not at all suggesting that you had to tick a box to show each year passing, or do something “unsophisticated” as you put it. It’s more about feeling it. But maybe it was just me, since you say I was the first person to ask you that question. I do plan to watch the film again. But let me move on since my time is very short. So, I’d say that the overwhelming conversation about the film, from those who’ve seen it, is centered on the realism and brutality you depict in it, and how hard it is to watch and handle. And I almost have this impulse to chuckle at that, not out of disrespect, but it’s just that I feel like it’s a reality – slavery in America, the history, American history – that we all should already be familiar with at this point. If you’ve read or even heard about slavery in America, I’d think that you would be expecting to see the brutality of it, and you shouldn’t be so shocked and surprised at what the film shows. I think maybe it speaks to the fact that this is the first film, in quite a long time, that really addresses the subject matter in a very realistic, non-sensational way. And so I wondered what your reaction is to the what the reactions to the film have been so far…
SM: I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, because the majority of the people are not saying that they can’t handle the violence. That’s just not true. Some people are saying it, but not the overwhelming number of people. You can’t come in here and say something that isn’t true. As a journalist, come on, I’m willing to talk to you, but you can’t tell me untruths. 
TO: It’s not a challenge or criticism of you or the film per say. More of my reaction to what I’ve read and heard as being the dominant conversation about the film. 
SM: I know it’s not a criticism. But when you ask me a question you have to be accurate. You’re a journalist, and I want to do the best I can for you and your website. So let’s start this right. I try to answer your questions the best way that I can. The majority of people are not saying that, but some people are. You’re sensationalizing the question for some reason.
TO: I’m not sensationalizing the question. But really Steve, come on, it’s screened at Telluride and Toronto, and I’m telling you that reactions in general, based on what I read in other reviews, and what I heard from those who’ve seen it, people are taken by the realism and brutality of it. As if it’s something they don’t or can’t recognize. 
SM: Some people. Some people.
TO: In your experience…
SM: In my experience. [short silence] You’ve come in, and unfortunately, your research is not particularly good. 
TO: Ok [laughter].
SM: If you say that some people have had that response, I can respond to that. But not to say that the majority of people have, as you said. 
TO: Ok, ok.  
SM: Ok. So let’s start again [sigh]. My, this has been bizarre.
TO: Ok, let’s [laughter].
SM: My response to that, is that, either we’re making a movie about slavery or we’re not. Now I want to make a movie about slavery. And in order to make a movie about slavery, one has to look at exactly what happened. Why people were slaves. The mental torture. And the physical torture. Now, I didn’t want to pull punches in that department because, otherwise, you know, you can’t make a movie about slavery that way, and I would be doing a disservice to the people that died, and the people that died, giving me my freedom, and I couldn’t let that happen.
TO: I think the most impactful scene in the film is during the last half of it, when Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Patsey, is whipped. That was probably the most heart-wrenching scene. We’ve actually been following Lupita for about 4 years, starting with when she did something for MTV Base in kenya – a show called Shuga on HIV awareness. And so when she was cast in the role, it was kind of a surprise for us, a pleasant one of course, since the rest of the film’s starring cast comprises of actors whose names and faces much of America is already familiar with. So I’m interested in your finding her, so to speak, and casting her in this part.
SM: I wouldn’t give myself credit for finding her at all. I mean, she already existed. It’s just that, what was interesting about that, is that there was a hunt for Patsey. A huge hunt, which lasted a very long time. I think we saw about 1000 girls for that role. And Lupita… she came from out of nowhere. And, you know, I was wondering if she was real on the audition tape. And thank God she won the part, because she’s sensational, she’s a force of nature, and we were really grateful to have her, because it was a real hunt. 
At this point, the Fox Searchlight rep signals that I’m running out of time.
TO: The gentlemen is telling me that I have two minutes left. So, it looks like I need to speed things up now…
SM: Because you had a bad start, I’ll give you 2 extra minutes on-top of the 2 minutes left.
TO: [Laughter] You’re too kind. You’re too kind… So… Are you aware of, or do you pay attention to the larger conversation taking place about Steve McQueen as the filmmaker, as the artist, or…
SM: No, no, not at all [immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively].
TO: Ok, I’ll just move on from that [laughter]. But as a filmmaker or artist of African descent, and as someone – myself – who writes about filmmakers of African descent, since that’s my website’s focus, I can say that there aren’t many black filmmakers, or filmmakers period, of your ilk. 
SM: Sure, sure.
TO: So do you think of yourself in this space as a significant, important artist, filmmaker…
SM: No, no. [again, immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively]. Not at all. 
The Fox Searchlight rep walks in to tell me that my time is up. Steve McQueen interrupts.
SM: [to the Fox Searchlight rep] We’ll give him 2 more minutes.
Fox Searchlight rep acknowleges and exits.
SM: Um, I don’t think of myself in any sort of context like that, far from it. I wouldn’t dare. 
TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn’t at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist.
SM: No, no. Never has. I don’t dare think in that way. I wouldn’t dare. 
TO: Ok, I’d love to dive a bit more into that, but I know my time is up, so I’ll squeeze whatever else I can in. So, everyone wants to know what’s next for Steve McQueen. With Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years A Slave, you tackle these sort of transgressive subjects, and do so in a way that’s also transgressive, we could say. Films and a filmmaking style and approach that most others would shy away from. In the USA anyway, especially in mainstream. Any plans for a Steve McQueen comedy, or a Steve McQueen horror movie, Steve McQueen thriller, etc.
SM: You say “Steve McQueen” but I’m not of any interest. You say “Steve McQueen comedy,” “Steve McQueen this or that.” I’m not a brand. I’m not any kind of institution. I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I try to do. I try to do the best I can. And that’s it, really.
TO: You may not think of yourself as someone of interest, or as a brand, but, come on, you’re the man of the hour. You may not pay attention, but there is a conversation being had about “Steve McQueen,” the filmmaker, the artist. Maybe not all over America, but your name carries certain expectations with the audiences who appreciate your work. We’ve come to expect certain things from a Steve McQueen film.
SM: I don’t think of myself like that, so I’m not even interested in having that conversation. Not out of disrespect, but I don’t see myself like that. I just see myself as a guy who’s trying to make a film or, make art. I don’t really get into that. It’s not my bag. I just try to do the best I can, and that’s it. You know. I’m not that interesting of a person. 
TO: [Laughter] You’re not?
SM: What I hope is that what I make is of interest. 
TO: Understood. But to go back to what I initially wanted to know, is that, you’re interested in tackling all kinds of subjects, in all genres, right?
SM: Sure, yes, of course.
TO: Ok, and can you let us know what you’re considering doing next.
SM: I’m interested in doing a musical actually.
TO: Oh really? That’s interesting. Any ideas on…
SM: I don’t know what. Not yet.
TO: Ok. That’s it. Thank you very much sir, I really appreciate the time.
SM: My absolute pleasure. 
TO: Thank you.
Thanks to Steve McQueen for the time. 
Fox Searchlight opens 12 Years A Slave today, October 18, in an initial limited release, in NYC and LA, before expanding nationwide.

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honestly, that was a dissapointing interview. sounded like you had a bone to pick, which is fine, but instead of moving the interview along, it became this odd kind of tussle between you both, which didnt really get anywhere. he was evasive, and you looked like you were badgering him almost. a shame, cos i like this this blog a lot. the film is over praised, and it is flawed, but it is also deserving in many ways. he/it just gets over scrutinised because there are few other black filmmakers in his position and any film about black slavery from a black director is going to get scrutinised to death by anyone interested in those subjects. hes got a lot of pressure on him.


Its really AGGRAVATING that this film has not been released for everyone to see. The industry decries so-called 'boot-leg' copies (and usually I do too) but releases like this make them VERY VERY attractive.


You can come to a director like spike lee like that, critique him etc becuase blk people MADE him they supported him from word GO but noone blk made steve mqueen he had sucess in england BEFORE he came to the US as an artist and now as a film maker he doesnt oh AA's a thing!


Wow the reason I beleieve he was so brisk is that he is not used to being asked these questions. the fact is that most of his audience and the journalists that he is interviewed by are WHITE!
He is not used to being interrogated by blks especially AA'S who have a dfifferent sensibilty to black europeans i.e much more upfront about race and differeent ex[ectations of a Black director. Although, he has never said he is a "black "director he is a director who happens to be blk. He will never wear his colour on his sleeve and besides why does he have to? it would not beneficial for his career seing that blk people are NOT financing his movies. Tambey i'm sad to say was out of his depth with this guy becuase he's NOT african american and therefore he is not going to feel "guilty" about not catering to a miniscule audience (in the broader scheme of things) that does not pay his wages- he has no reason to.


Wow! I wish I'd be there in person for this. I wish this was videotaped. Reading it I can tell that body language between the two of you must have added even more to the whole thing. I just imagine you sitting on opposite sides of a desk, staring each other down LOL. Well Tambay, no matter what anyone says, one thing you can for sure count on is that Steve McQueen will definitely not forget you and if you ever get the chance to interview him again, now that will be interesting! I can just imagine you walking into the interview room, and McQueen looks at you and right away, light bulbs go off in his head, and he'll probably be thinking, 'I remember you! You again, you sonofabitch!' LOL! And then you'll both hug it out and that second interview will be much more fun. So as far as I'm concerned, mission accomplished, not that that is what you set out to do. But I bet he won't right away remember all the people who interviewed him before and after you, asking the same old generic questions he's answered a million times. Keep doing it the way you're doing it bruh! With 95 comments below mine, no matter what they say, obviously you're doing something right. Peace.


The antagonisms that transpired here were a joy to behold (sorry Tambay. Clearly it wasn't the easiest of exchanges but hat-tip to you for delivering an enthralling interview. If only you'd gotten 2+ minutes on top of the bonus 2. It was really starting to marinate beautifully when you got the issue of 'Blackness'- Damn it!!!)


A bitter taste has been left in my mouth. That's right, after reading all the comments (for a second time) and re-reading my last conversation with T-Nails, I've come to the conclusion that Tambay has been falsely accused of committing some type of nondescript error. So let me explain.

This caught my eye–> "and also being cognizant of his temperament – it was clear to me that I had to be well-prepared, given that I would be asking a few questions that would likely be considered criticisms of the film and the filmmaker."

Bingo! That DOES NOT sound like a man who was unprepared, nor someone who was on a subversive mission. It's plan to me that Tambay was well-prepared… and knew McQueen may not welcome his line of questions. That proved to be true–> STEVE MCQUEEN: [short silence] "You're the first person to ask me that question".

Well-well-well, Steve admitted that he wasn't accustom to answering that type of non-cookie cutter, untraditional type of questions, and thus, immediately started dancing around the flag pole. Now Tambay was well aware of Steve's evasive technique (he does live in New York, he has seen it all) so, determine to have Steve address his concerns in a more direct fashion, he pushed forward. But wait, is this the point in the "interview" where some are suggesting Tambay should have bowed down to the new king? Well, I don't think so, and neither did Tambay. He knew this dude may not get his hair cut tight, with a bald fade (or even go to the barber shop) he puts his pants on just like him. And, when someone is obviously playing the nut role (some would call it feigning ignorance) most men take that as an affront to their intelligence (and in some cases their manhood) so Tambay could not (and shouldn't be expect to) let Steve off the hook. So Tambay came back–> "I just noticed at the end when he is finally reunited with his family – that's only when I realized that it had indeed been 12 years."

Upon hearing that response, Steve still didn't believe fat meat was greasy, so he tried to slip Tambay another ambiguous side-step which gave the appearance of talking down S&A's editor, or trying to intimidate him. Check this out –> McQueen replies, " Well, that's just not sophisticated. Putting onto the screen every single year"

What?! Negro please, what's not sophisticated… the fact that your 12 years felt like one year? Or, is it not sophisticated enough for you to admit you dropped the ball?

Listen, in a nutshell, that's the crux of this "dispute". McQueen wasn't accustomed to being challenged by another black man who saw straight through his evasive ways. So BAM, he went into attack mode, but Tambay wasn't having it. In fact, in the unedited version Tambay can he heard telling McQueen "Listen here nappyhead, I ain't scared of you motherf**ker… this is my goddamn city, so sit up and act like you have some damn sense".

Yep, in short, the "fault" (if there is any) does not rest at Tambay's door.


"In my experience. [short silence] You've come in, and unfortunately, your research is not particularly good." — Steven McQueen

Well, for the record, Tambay usually try to state facts that are sometimes in accurate, making it appear as if he doesn't do his research. But to Tambay's credit he admits when he is wrong when stood corrected.

T Nails

As someone who has worked on "Shame" and witnessed how Steve McQueen works, I feel Mr. Tambay, you truly missed an opportunity to give the readers of indiewire some insight on how a true artist manages to makes films with integrity in today's relentlessly commercial market. You are interviewing a man who's not only gifted but passionate about his craft. Film crew such as myself, take pay cuts and clear our decks to work with someone of his caliber. It's exceedingly more difficult to make a living in independent film as it was during the "DVD / Shooting Gallery Years". So we as crew make material sacrifices for spiritual and professional satisfaction. We expect a similar level of preparation, passion and professionalism on your end.

The fact that there is considerably more text of you talking than SM, speaks volumes. You also seemed fixated on issues that would interest a gossip or racial activist rag than those I hope Indiewire still serves (people interested in filmmakers). Steve McQueen will make films his way and that is next to impossible these days. Whether you like his films or not, he's one of the few truly independent voices in film.

Why did you seem to show no interest in approaching him about filmmaking? Nothing about how he runs a set, stages a scene, composes a shot, auditions talent, or the difficulties in making this film. You want to get real insights into a man, any man, ask them questions about work. Ultimately their answers say much more about them than their job.

SM is not an expert on hype/brand nor cares a wit about representing his people. So you won't get superficial answers speaking about himself in the third person or prefaced with "as a black man….". But you will get excellent answers about how it was working with union technicians, locations in Louisiana, casting names for budget, casting no names (Lupita), how he works with talent for best performance, why he does so few takes and very little coverage (we went into overtime just once on "Shame"), how does a much bigger budget / cast effect his method, what does working with Bobbit, his DP, impacts his films, why he refuses to shoot on digital and stays with film, and so on.

Get a man to talk about what he does for a living, you'll get a glimpse of his soul. Ask him about his soul, he'll say he has "two minutes left".


CareyCarey said: "Listen, I am not a screenwriter (nor a seasoned writer, by any stretch of imagination) but again, having read the book, I can't help but believe this story, this movie could have been a greater event had the writer and director chosen different chapters, different scenes, different details to highlight. "

CC, so what you're saying is that you wanted the same plot telling a different story.
And that's just the thing.
A different story is also what Tambay would have wanted (at least that's what I'm getting from his posts)
And, true, a different story is what I would have liked too.
However… this is not our movie. It's McQueen's.

A while ago someone here said "must every black movie be everything to everybody?"
You could ask the same thing about slavery themed films: must every slave movie be everything to everybody?
Steve McQueen chose those segments from the narrative that spoke most to him – given his background, life experiences, education and level of familiarity with the subject of slavery. Naturally, his choice of material and subsequent treatment of matters has not been what others would have picked.
Personally, I thought someone with West Indian roots like McQueen would jump to the chance to show the prevalence (and successes) of black resistance in slavery (inspired, as I imagine him to be, by the story of West Indian Maroons). But of course I'm only thinking that, because I have West Indian roots myself and a resistance-themed story is what I have dedicated myself to for the past few years.
Alas, McQueen chose to use his camera differently. Obviously, what speaks to one writer, does not speak to another.

Also, as Tambay pointed out previously, no other film compares to 12 Years in terms of topic.
Amistad comes close, but Amistad was more about the American lawyer than the African slaves. There no yardstick for slave movies. Then again, perhaps 12 Years is the beginning of such. In all honesty, even though I would have preferred a different treatment of Northup's story, I'd say 12 Years is a good enough start.


When I grow up I wannabe just like Tambay, so I think I'll start today. I mean, since we're on the eve of this great event, Tambay decided to repost his spirited and contentious interview with Steve McQueen, so I 'm going to get my roll out by reposting my thoughts on the matter at hand.

Yes, I'm trolling… sue me. :o

The big day has arrived, everyone can now see Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave.

The scratch lines have been drawn with Armond White arrogantly standing on one side with a chip on his shoulder. I am more than sure there will be those who will gladly oppose the gladiator with the razor blades and sharp pen. When the dust settles, I doubt we'll see traitors crossing the battle line to join forces with the opposing camps. Those who have a predisposition to champion this film and those who dislike everything about the contrarian mudslinger, will hold their battle lines (humans generally do not change unless their backs are against the wall). And, it has been said that the four most difficult words for humans to say are, I was wrong, I love you, I don't know and I am sorry. So I doubt we will see any of those words spoken in this forum.

Hey, I have seen the movie and read the book (it is on-line and its an easy read which can be read in a day) and I've run my mouth excessively on what I thought of the film.

"Yes the f*ck you have Carey, you raghead, lawn jockey, country hick, CrazyCarey, so what's new?"

Anyway, before the dust clears, let me explain my position one-more-time :)

Having read the book and seen the film and read Armond's review, I have to agree with his position that McQueen's version of Solomon Northup's journey weighed a wee bit too heavy on shock and horror. The book (about 300 pages) did not have the tone of horror nor were there vivid descriptions of rape and mutilation. Mr. McQueen's depiction of those events were manifested in his own mind. Why did he choose to go there? Well, only his hairdresser knows for sure, but some folks need that type of shock and awe in their movie watching experience. And some folks believe it's a necessary evil in order to show the true horrors of slavery. To that shortsighted opinion, I have to borrow a phrase from a song written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and recorded by the Philly soul musical group Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: "If You Don't Know Me By Now"… you will never ever know me! In essence, no one will learn anything new by watching this film. So really, why did Steve McQueen chose to focus on the violent aspects of Northup's book?

Well, again, I don't know, I can alone assume that he knows what sells best. But I do know, in fairness to the director, he was true to the book in the sense that he followed the book to a tee, chapter after chapter. However, the devil's in the details that he chose to highlight, and conversely, those he chose to leave out. Listen, I am not a screenwriter (nor a seasoned writer, by any stretch of imagination) but again, having read the book, I can't help but believe this story, this movie could have been a greater event had the writer and director chosen different chapters, different scenes, different details to highlight.

Having said all the above and in my more spirited previous comments, I give the film a 7 1/2. It was entertaining. And, some of the actors may hear their names called during next year's awards season.

And…. I agree with Tambay and the below comments from JTC, KEV, BE FREE, Nadia, Curtis and BB.


I think the mistake folks make is that they fail to realize that most artist do not like being defined. They would rather tell you who they are instead of you telling them what you think they are no matter how well versed you may think you are in black film snobbery.


Quote from Donella: "Tambay, based on this transcript, it does appear that you approached the subject of the interview with a personal agenda, and maybe a chip on your shoulder."

Exactly Donella!


I hate when smart people show how smart they are! Yes it's true! It reminds me how far i have to go. So what!!! the only black filmmaker who should have his nuts worshipped is Tyler Perry. And that is my job first and foremost! So there!


Tambay, based on this transcript, it does appear that you approached the subject of the interview with a personal agenda, and maybe a chip on your shoulder.


This writer is obviously trying to instigate something. If you can't stand out by your exceptional writing or insight, I guess you can just try being a dick…


I think you are wrong. Steve is not rude, but impatient with being asked really, really dumb questions. And I must admit, as a journalist myself I cringed at the foolishly persistent and embarrassingly naive questions put by this interviewer. I mean:

TO: Ok, I'll just move on from that [laughter]. But as a filmmaker or artist of African descent, and as someone – myself – who writes about filmmakers of African descent, since that's my website's focus, I can say that there aren't many black filmmakers, or filmmakers period, of your ilk.

SM: Sure, sure.

TO: So do you think of yourself in this space as a significant, important artist, filmmaker…

Should Steve so early in his career self-dub himself a "significant, important artist and filmmaker"????


And the other question:

TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn't at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist?

This is surely a non-sequitur in context, but more annoyingly is he saying that as a journalist his blackness influences how he chooses to structure an article???

This is the kind of dumb ass line of thinking that too many black critics get tied up in…and I am not saying that because I am defending Steve because I am a Brit Grenadian like him.


he sounds like an asshole. comes off very – um unpleasant. makes me not really want to see this film actually. you did a good job, tambay.


@befree yes i would say he is a great artist
feel like some people have only heard of him because of his most recent work – which to be fair as a brit I had access to his work sooner than maybe most


TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn't at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist.

SM: No, no. Never has. I don't dare think in that way. I wouldn't dare.
I think he means that he doesn't want his work and the audience to think that everything is filtered thru blackness or his black experience. Of course it's going to slip thru somewhere. But I think he's fighting through a box that's being formed around him. That's understandable. Any story he writes or adapts has to be told honestly without any bias in order for the truth to shine though. I think he's looking to the human condition and showcase how different experiences are connected. I see this movie as a prison trilogy. I remember reading that some didn't like the way the guards were portraying in Hunger. It would be a less powerful movie if McQueen didn't show the routine of the guards and how their jobs affect them…how people get pulled into something just trying to feed their families. That's more powerful. I can see how people can find themselves doing terrible things and following orders. Many of those people following orders and doing their job will get drunk on power and that creates a huge monster. I am reminded of The Milgram Experiment when I think of that angle included in the Hunger.

Most artist are sensitive about their work . I'm sure he wants to dig deeper into Solomon's story and character study of all involved rather than focus on him …how something like slavery becomes normal like and what that does to the psyche. This story is a great choice because in brings in a free person who hasn't experienced slavery. Like the Sissy character in Shame, there's a shakeup…a door into a world that is business as usual. Everyone reacts to Solomon because they're confronted with his intellect and humanity. The slavers are reminded of the lies told to continue this institution and suffer the sting of that dichotomy. You can't display that with a pure evil angle. Yeah, it's an evil practice but who are these people. Let's dig into that with a true story. Not with anger.

I see all 3 movies as a trilogy of prisons…freedom and dignity.

P.S. Thank you Kev, Kell and Be Free! SMH


To begin with full disclosure, I enjoyed Steve McQueen's first two films and I can't wait to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Having stated that, I deeply enjoy the work of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. I don't enjoy the work of David Lynch and Lars Von Trier (with the exception of Dogville), and I go half and half for the work of Spike Lee and Terrence Malick. I write this because all of these directors have achieved significant levels of critical acclaim (though Spike has his detractors obviously) thus I have failed in regards to respecting the opinions of the critics.

I recognize that there is something of a hype machine which is starting to build around Steve McQueen, but I find it problematic when there is a suggestion that certain "taste makers" declare a filmmaker worthy and "the rest of us fall in line." I can't stand David Lynch, but when others tell me that they love his films (and many people do) I don't understand why. I see a certain perverse creativity. He just doesn't do it for me. However, I don't assume that they like him because they were told to. Something to consider. To each their own.

In regards to his response which suggests that his African-ness doesn't influence decisions as a filmmaker, I've got to call foul on this one. It is not possible for any artist not to be influenced by their lived experience, whether by gender, age, class, and yes, race. His answer actually surprised me, but I wonder if it reflects the fact that I have known a considerable amount of non AA black people who try to avoid dealing with the strange complexity of American racialism. I would have loved to hear him expound on this.


I haven't seen the movie as of yet, but I have watched other interviews with SM. Those interviews led me to believe that his publicity team needs to work with him due to the fact he'll certainly be interviewed from now until Oscar season.
So, I went into this article thinking you would be fair yet ready and willing to still ask the questions. But this interview is an exact example of what an interviewer should not do. I came away thinking this was more of an interrogation rather than an interview.

TO, you may be right about what you felt after the movie, won't know it until I see it, but you went into this interview looking for a fight and almost got one. Thank goodness it seems SM publicity team has worked with him cause quite frankly… he made you look petty.


Oh. My. GOD. Reading this interview and many of these comments is enough to make a sane person hurl himself off a cliff (and type in ALL CAPS).

It is a movie about the 12 YEARS IN A SLAVE'S LIFE and exception is taken with a question about whether or not the length ie. gravity of those 12 years of slavery were portrayed/felt by the viewer?
Not to mention it is a movie about SLAVERY directed by a BLACK MAN in a RARE POSITION in one of THE MOST SEGREGATED/RACIST INDUSTRIES IN THE WORLD (still in 2013) and further exception is taken with him being asked how his race influences him?!?

Jesus, I really just don't know where to start. And I won't.

"Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."


Be Free

All this talk about Steve McQueen being a "true artist" is grating on my nerves! As opposed to what? A fake artist. Do folks even know what they mean when they say shit like that? There are a lot of artists in this business, and everybody's got their own voice, style and film language. McQueen is another one of many. The main difference with him is that he's black! If he were white, he'd just be another white "enfant terrible" like Lars Von Trier or Harmony Korine. We won't care as much. But he's black and he's in a very rare position. He's been deemed an "important" filmmaker by the taste makers and the rest of us fall in line. Name another black filmmaker who's so loved by white critics and moviegoers. Whose films are filling up screening rooms at major festivals like Cannes and Toronto. They've embraced him like no other. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's end with this "true artist" shite. And also the "great artist" shite. Why is he such a "great artist"? He's made 3 films. 2 of which we've seen. One that's coming. The first one was an experiment that passed the critics test and that I'll admit was interesting, but still cold and distant. The second one was really just your basic drama with some NC17 sex scenes. Take those out and you've got a basic drama about a dude with issues. We've seen that before. But we've also seen NC17 sex scenes before. The film was way over-rated! And then you've got a very conventional drama about slavery. I saw it at Toronto and it's also over-rated. Why is he a "great artist"? Based on what exactly? He still has to prove himself IMHO. "Do The Right Thing" was much more powerful than anything McQueen's done to date. Stop falling all over yourselves to lick his toes. He's ok in my book, but the hype machine is working overtime with this one. Some people want to make sure he succeeds and we give him a pass on shit. And I don't buy any of that shit about him not being aware of the conversations that are being had about him. Please. First he argues that he's read reviews and that only some of them are talking about the brutality of the film, but then a few questions later, he says, "oh no, I don't read any of what is said about me, because I'm too much of a true artist to get caught up in what other people are saying." And nobody caught that contradiction? SMH.


This "article" is a trip. You do come across as presumptive and disrespectful, so I'm not at all surprised by McQueen's reaction. Then you add to the pile on with underhanded comments. Sometimes when people claim they "like" you, they are really vindictive, hateful or jealous and try to sabotage you.


Wait, I'm still looking. WHERE is the question?

I think you misunderstand me. Not that specific. Like I said, nothing overt. Some subtle indications of this passage of time so that one actually feels the weight of 12 long years of oppression. So, no, not ticking off every single year… But, it's slavery era USA, and 12 years have passed from the beginning to the end of the film, and I wanted to feel the weight of oppression of time, and, I just didn't feel that.


This is a question?

"TAMBAY OBENSON (TO): The one thing that really stuck out to me about the film is the passage of time which I didn't quite notice. I think I wanted to feel that 12 years pass, and really feel the weight of the oppression suffered over those 12 years. But, the way the film progressed, and maybe I just missed some cues, it almost felt like it played over just a matter of weeks or even days, as opposed to 12 long years. And Like I said, maybe I missed some cues, but I really wanted to feel the oppression over that lengthy passage of time, and not necessarily anything overt."


Congrats on a really good interview. You pushed the envelope and got some really honest answers. I am shocked he doesn't identify himself as a brand. He uses Fassbender in everything and has particularly the same style. He is an auteur. I think he isn't doing the Spike Lee thing but he should have understood himself to be a brand…hmm. This must be the English way of thinking.

julius pryor

A great artist usually equals a huge ego. Im not surprised by any of his responses.

karen marie mason

TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn't at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist.
SM: No, no. Never has. I don't dare think in that way. I wouldn't dare.



Cringey worthy, I am sure the mood was lighter but it just came across as if you pissed him off, shame as he is an interesting person to hear speak


I guess I really didn't get the issue with the passage of time. I think the ending hits harder that way. You realize oh wow its been 12 years, I actually dont think the ending would be as emotional if the passage of time was more apparent. That is just my opinion…of course.


Contrary to what other folks are saying, I think it was good that the passage of time question was asked from the start. Yes it put McQueen on the defense, but I think that was a good thing. He wasn't expecting it and it caught him off guard which is good. I can only imagine how boring these junkets can get especially if you're being asked the same damn set of general questions every body else is asking. So this shook him up a bit and that's fine. But I also believe that he's the artist being interviewed so he should've been ready for any question that was asked, as long as it was reasonable, no matter whether it was asked first, second or third. Who's to say that he wouldn't have reacted the same way if the question was asked last. But he calmed down eventually when he saw that Tambay wasn't there to jump on him. So I think he's cool and everything's cool. Otherwise, it's a good read and a good interview and kinda funny too! Some of y'all just need to chill out. I'm looking at all these trolls who've never commented on this site before.


Yeah, you should've squeezed that passage of time question in towards the end. I don't think he was too upset or else he wouldn't have given you those extra couple of minutes.


Steve seems to be on top form here. After I finished watching 'Hunger', I knew he'd be a relentless film maker and an uncompromising person regarding his truth.


Tambay asked a question that could be construed as negative . . . and McQueen got defensive. I think starting lighter may have been a better idea, but if McQueen's goal is to make art then he needs to know that art is meant to provoke conversation and thoughts. All those thoughts aren't always going to be glowing. The better thing to do would have been to answer the question and moved on. I think too often people expect to sit in the chair and to never be challenged. And as for the batting away questions about blackness . . . that's silly too. Yes you just want to make films, yes you just want to be an artist . . . but you sit in a rarefied place . . . so blackness will always come into conversation about your art . . . especially for a blog that deals with film of the African Diaspora. I also think it's silly to say you are not a brand . . . just because you deny it doesn't mean it's not true. Meryl Streep is a brand . . . we expect impeccable work from her always . . . that's her brand. Sigh!


In defense of Tambay, McQueen is a bit temperamental in interviews. Not "angry black dude" or any of that nonsense, just very above it all in a way. I honestly believe that he expects others to get on his intelligence level or just be quiet. I've seen him live at a Q&A and he was the same way. It's refreshing but can induce eye-rolling sometimes, in my opinion.

As someone who's seen the movie twice already, I can say that Tambay isn't off-base in his assessment of the time element. I truly forgot that it had been a 12 year journey for Northrup because it didn't really appear on screen in any significant way (i.e. aging makeup, etc.) until the very end. It didn't stop me from loving the film, though.


Does not sound like you will get another interview from him.


I'll tell you exactly why this interview went the way it did: you started with "here's what I felt was wrong with your movie." The filmmaker responded to that. And then you proceeded to harp on the issue for four or five more questions. It was pretty trolly and would put anyone on the defensive. Was the intent here really to interview him, or just to give him your review in person and document his reaction?

This was very weird. The interview literally does not begin until the Patsey/Lupita question. Why so aggressive?


LOL! The Steve McQueen Stans are out in full force! "Don't nobody say anything bad about Steve McQueen, nope. Don't nobody…" LOL.


Really, you actually published this? Suggestion: Drop the "I know something you don't" foolishness and hire a real journalist or someone who really can talk about film. Geez, this was so embarrassing.


I respect him for being generous with his time even when things seemed to be headed south. But I get his irritation–no major director on the world stage really wants to answer questions on what it means to be a black director and whether his race contributes to his approach. That angle's been done to death. This new generation of filmmakers wants the dignity of a colorblind assessment of its work. And mentioning his "temperament" probably didn't earn the site any future favors… However, I'd love to know what other questions you had for him.


Woe is me, which way should I go? Well… since I have tickets to see this film, this Sunday, I was balking at reading the interview. Then, Ramie's comment hit the board. Oh my, stupid, crappy and pointless series of questions, huh?

Oh well, I don't know how any questions can be pointless or stupid so I wanted to find out how that works, but again I balked. There I was, stuck between reading a juicy interview and spoiling my upcoming experience. Woe is me, what am gonna do?

Okay, I think I'll hold out (I'm gonna try) because other than the tidbits in this 12 minute sit down, I am interested in seeing if I fall in the minority crowd with Tambay. I mean, lots of folks loved Lee Daniel's The Butler as much as they loved Wonder Bread's new 1930 product – sliced bread, but I wasn't in that crowd.

Anyway, it's a done deal, I think I'll pass on reading anything concerning 12 Years A Slave, including this interview, until Monday. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger said "I'll be back".


I agree with the director McQueen. This was a poor interview and shows the lack of accuracy on the part of the interviewer. Are you familiar with films and directing or documentary programs. The passage of time is not some poignant event, especially in the life of a slave. How would a slave confined geographically take notice of the years? I would have to agree that the physical world itself and the aging physically of the persons is the only clue. I am still going to see the film in NY.


Tambay, Tambay, Tambay….
Leave your preconceived notions at the door. Be a blank slate as an interviewer. It'll render a much better interview.

Hats off to you for this Q&A. really enjoyed it.

Accidental Visitor

In defense to Tambay, in the earliest reviews there were two which also commented that the film didn't do that good of a job in giving you a sense of the passage of time. Other than that they raved about the film with one of them claiming it was the movie's only flaw. And besides them and Tambay no one else has brought up that topic.

I guess I'll find out myself when I see the movie; I always envisioned the passage of time being a key component in telling the story. But even if that does end up being somewhat lacking I can deal with it as long as the movie itself is fantastic.


Hunger was wrenching but Shame was an awful, self serving exploration of "indulgence." He doesn't get a pass for that cloddish piece. But I am looking forward to 12 Years.

Masha Dowell

What a great interview Tambay. I saw the film last night; and I liked seeing slavery from his point of view. For me, the best parts of the film were subtle and unspoken.


What a stupid, really crappy and pointless series of questions. I am embarrassed for this interviewer who makes S&A a laughing stock.

Erik W.

After reading this interview, I respect McQueen even more. He's an artist that is not in the black box. Thank God.

Things like needing to have a black cast for his films to be considered a REAL black filmmaker. Not worrying about brand, saying he is not interested in the clear burden of representation, etc.,

Much respect for the no nonsense attitude and making sure the work comes first and foremost.

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