“12 years a slave” director Steve McQueen sees slavery as a world story

British film director Steve McQueen in Minneapolus November 9th 2013 for two appearances in the Twin Cities (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

Steve McQueen strolled into the conference room in a downtown Minneapolis hotel this afternoon ready to talk. He’s an intense guy, who makes intense films, most recently “12 years a slave.” The movie which unflinchingly examines the horrors of slavery in the South in the 1840s, has drawn critical praise, and helped rekindle the debate of what this history means to the present in the United States.

McQueen says he believes the interest in the film comes in part because of recent news events: the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the Supreme Court Decision on the Voting Rights Act.

“People are actually questioning where they have come from, and who they are, and what position they are now in general,” McQueen said. “Black, white, Asian, Spanish, whoever and that’s important to do: reflect on the past to find out where you are in the present.”

McQueen says there have only ever been 20 feature films made about slavery itself. He had tried to write a script of his own about a free man being sold into slavery, but it wasn’t working. Then his wife Bianca Stigter, who is a historian, suggested they look for real slave stories, and she found “12 years a slave” written by Solomon Northrop.

“And it was one of those strange things that when you have an idea, and the idea is manifested already in your hand, and there it is, your idea in full script form virtually, it was just too compelling,” he said.

The movie is both beautiful and brutal. Much of it was filmed on former plantations in Louisiana, places with a natural splendor which belies the bloody events which happened there. McQueen describes making the film there as “dancing with ghosts. ”

Much has been made of the fact that McQueen is British, and several of his stars are from outside the US. But McQueen says the bulk of the cast and crew were American, and the story they tell touches just about everybody

“The whole idea of slavery for me never had ownership in the United States. Slavery was a world industry. And I am evidence of that – my parents were from the West Indies. And the only difference between me and an American person who looks like me is their boat went right and my boat went left.”

McQueen attended a screening of the film in Brooklyn Center this afternoon. He will also take part in a dialog about his work at the Walker Art Center this evening.

An interview with McQueen will air on the Daily Circuit during the 11 am hour on Monday.