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AFI Fest 2013: Steve McQueen Talks ’12 Years a Slave,’ Why He Wants to Discuss Slavery Now, & His #1 Goal for Solomon Northrup’s Story

AFI Fest 2013: Steve McQueen Talks '12 Years a Slave,' Why He Wants to Discuss Slavery Now, & His #1 Goal for Solomon Northrup's Story

“Why do I know about Anne Frank and not Solomon Northup?”

So queried Steve McQueen during AFI Fest’s “On Directing: A Conversation with Steve McQueen,” Sunday night’s 45-minute Q&A between the director behind “12 Years a Slave” and moderator Brickson Diamond, Board Chair of the Blackhouse Foundation. Held in the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, McQueen spoke primarily about his latest film while touching on a few of his own personal goals and beginnings. McQueen was welcomed by a patient (the program began 30 minutes behind schedule with many fans standing for more than an hour in line) and enthusiastic crowd who gave him a standing ovation upon his introduction. The following are the evening’s highlights:

“It always starts with a crayon and a piece of paper, doesn’t it?”

After McQueen graciously thanked the audience for their warm reception (“My heart is big and swollen. Thank you very much.”), moderator Brickson Diamond wasted no time digging into the director’s roots. McQueen said he began his artistic career by drawing. “For me, I was very lucky I could draw. From a very young age, I could draw and through that sort of evolution from painting to cinema…it was just that kind of procession.” He said he discovered film around the age of 17 and spent much of his free time in theaters watching the classics. “It gave me the opportunity to view the world,” McQueen said.

“I wanted to make a film about slavery.”

“I had this idea of a free man from the North who was dragged into slavery, and we the audience follow him as he tries to regain his freedom,” McQueen said when discussing the film’s origins. That script “wasn’t going so well” and McQueen’s wife suggested he look into true accounts of slavery for help. He found “12 Years a Slave” and became obsessed. “When I read it, it was, of course, a revelation for me because I didn’t know Solomon Northup. I was asking myself, ‘Why?’ I was quite embarrassed and thought I was quite stupid. Then I realized no one I knew was aware of this book.” McQueen began the adaptation process, and the rest is history–both America’s and cinema’s.

“This is the Anne Frank diary of America.”

McQueen became convinced of the story’s historical significance quickly. “The whole idea of Anne Frank and Anne Frank’s diary was so huge. It was required reading while I was in England. It upset me in the way, ‘How did I know Anne Frank but I didn’t know Solomon Northup?’ I read ’12 Years a Slave’ and thought, ‘This is the Anne Frank diary of America.'” At the end of the evening, McQueen said his main goal for the film was to get the novel into the national curriculum. “This has to be in the national curriculum. It’s a non-brainer. That will be the legacy of Solomon Northup.”

“There’s no black and white, just America.”

Diamond asked McQueen about the conversation he wanted to start when he chose to make “12 Years a Slave” as well as whether or not what he’s actually been speaking about varies from the original goal at all. “This is not a passive movie,” McQueen said. “It is a kind of call to arms, if only to call a friend to say that you are okay.” Diamond mentioned how some white audiences might be too uncomfortable to watch the film, whether it be out of embarrassment or a conscious choice to avoid the subject. “It’s part of history, and it’s their history, too,” McQueen said. “It’s not exclusively black. The most interesting aspect is if you look at Solomon Northup’s current family. There were two daughters and one son, Alonzo. Alonzo’s strain went white and the other strain, of course, remained black. So when you see the family photograph of Solomon’s current family, it is America. Black, white, tall, short, fat. That’s America. There is no black and white, just America.”

“I just do it.”

When asked about how he makes the movies he wants to make the way he wants to make them, McQueen had a simple answer. “I don’t talk. I don’t think. I just do it.” Diamond pressed him to give some advice to other filmmakers on how to “just do it,” and McQueen remained firm with his advice. “You’re over thinking. Do it. It’s hard work. Of course there will be obstacles in your way, but don’t talk about it. Just get on with it.”

“That’s the power of cinema.”

McQueen was asked to provide an example of a reaction to the movie he cherished, and his choice could not have been more poignant. “We went to Orlando to the National Black Media Conference. The film wasn’t even shown. What happened was we showed a couple of clips as a junket. There were maybe 200 people in the room, and this lady stood up and said she’s never said this before in public, but her grandfather was poisoned for teaching kids how to read in the [slave quarters]. She had just come to terms with it. She only found out about 10 years ago, and the fact that she could vocalize that pain in front of everyone was because of the movie. It gave her a platform. She was allowed to have a voice. That’s the power of cinema.” 

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