‘12 Years a Slave’: Steve McQueen on unearthing the true tale


When “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen first encountered the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man in antebellum New York who was lured to the South and enslaved for more than a decade, he was riveted. “Every page was a revelation,” McQueen said. “Every single page. I couldn’t believe it.”

Speaking at a presentation of the film at the Envelope Screening Series, McQueen recounted how he and screenwriter John Ridley had been contemplating telling a story about slavery, but were struggling. It was McQueen’s wife, a historian, who suggested mining true accounts of slavery, and it was she who uncovered Northup’s book.

“She found this book called ’12 Years a Slave,’ and she said to me, ‘I think I’ve got it,’ ” McQueen said. “And if ever there was an understatement, that was it. … Sometimes, I think you can actually be a magnet -- you want something so bad that actually it comes to you.”


WATCH: Envelope Screening Series — ’12 Years a Slave’

But McQueen’s sense of discovery wasn’t the only emotion he felt. “When I got to the end of it,” he said, “ I was very upset with myself. I was actually mad at myself for not knowing this material. But then I realized, slowly and surely, no one I knew knew this book.”

McQueen compared Northup’s story to that of Anne Frank, calling it “equally as gripping and an alarm bell, a rallying call [that] this should never happen again. So with that, that became my passion to make this book into a film.”

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup in the film, was equally transfixed by the book, calling it “a kind of portal. It’s a gift from 1853 to the modern world. [The book] talks about the entire society in a way that we can all recognize ourselves, because he talks about people, humanity.”

Ejiofor added, “This is one story. There are a million stories.”

For more from Ejiofor and McQueen, watch the clip above, and check back for daily highlights.



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