MY LIFE IN FILM: IT'S NOT WHO YOU ARE, IT'S WHERE YOU'RE AT: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
It was in 2013, the year that the trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin eventually took place, that Steve McQueen’s powerful 12 Years a Slave came out. That October, I interviewed Steve, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor about their work in bringing Solomon Northup’s book to our lives. That evening has remained a seminal moment for me. To be able to have a conversation about slavery and race in the context of this film and with these artists was such a privilege. So it’s particularly pertinent to return to this now, in June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the consequences we are experiencing.
Here’s the transcript of that conversation. And here’s the video of the interview.
Zoë Elton: When I first saw your film it was in July (2013), I just saw it with a handful of people in this room (the Rafael Film Center) and it was a couple of days after Obama had spoken about the Trayvon Martin case. So to see this back-to-back with that particular speech was particularly moving for me. But much more than that, after I saw the film, and I want to say this because I want to acknowledge that it’s actually quite hard, I think, to even speak after seeing this film, I felt changed on a cellular level. And I basically went home and wrote for a few hours. And that lasted for several days. So I want to acknowledge that in terms of doing a Q&A it may be kind of hard for people to ramp up into that mode.
But I’m wondering also, I think the experience of the film for us as audiences is something that changes us. And I’m wondering if the experience of making the film changed each or any of you in any way. [Steve McQueen looks at Lupita Nyong’o; she laughs]
Lupita, I think you get to go first.
Lupita Nyong’o: Wow. Yes, making this film has changed so much for me. First of all, this being my first feature film right out of graduate school, and to work with such incredible artists like Steve and Michael and Chiwetel and Alfre and the list goes on and on. That was a life-changing thing in itself. And then with a role like Patsy, that’s a dream role for an actor, to have such a complex character, such a vibrant one, one that when I first read this script I was so intrigued by her but also so heartbroken. In the book Solomon Northup describes her as having “an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of,” and I really wanted to do that character justice, to find a way to play her with dignity and agency. Living in that woman’s world has changed my life, my understanding will never be the same because I’ve had the opportunity to take that part of history so personally. I’m hoping that that will be the case for everyone who gets to see it.
Zoë: Chiwetel, how about you?
Chiwetal Ejiofor: I felt there was a life and a way before this experience and then a life afterwards and some of that has to do with the nature, exactly as Lupita says, of the piece, and some of that is the process of doing it and the way in which Steve works - and the way in which he works with actors, the way in which he works with a whole cast and crew, the way that everybody is able and determined and allowed to bring their creativity into the process, they’re encouraged to give 100% and everybody wants to do that but it’s great to have somebody articulate that desire and Steve is somebody who can and does. So the process has changed my relationship to acting somehow as well as the overall theme and situation of it, it’s also been very directly personal to me as an actor.
Zoë: And Steve, how about you?
Steve McQueen: Nothing’s changed. [Smiles.] Really? I hope it does get to change. I mean look, the whole point for me of making this film was because of this book. And beforehand, I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt that within the canon of film this particular subject hadn’t been tackled. My wife found this book, I read the book and I was astonished by it. I was astonished by two things: first that I didn’t know the book and I was a bit ashamed of myself and angry at myself, “how could I not know this book?!” but slowly I realized that no one knew this book that I knew and I thought that was pretty amazing. I live in Amsterdam and Anne Frank’s diary, it’s not national, it’s global, everyone knows Anne Frank’s diary, I went to school and I was taught that. And I thought hey, every school should have 12 Years a Slave on their curriculum and that’s my aim about this film, that every school should have this in their curriculum. So as far as change is concerned, that will be a big change if that’s at all possible. Again, it’s all about evidence, and getting things done rather than dreams, I’m interested in that.
Zoë: I hope that is so, I do feel that this needs to be a text for everybody, it’s extraordinary, an extraordinary piece, as your film, I hope will be a film for everybody to see. You were talking about the need for a film that addresses slavery in the canon of film, and one of the things that’s extraordinary about your film is that it places the story in the hands of the people who lived it. My fear would be that if this story had been made in Hollywood in perhaps the not too distant past it would have been seen through the eyes of the Benedict Cumberbatch character. I feel as well as slavery, you’re also making a film that connects with these characters in a very particular way and gets through to who they were. In talking a little bit about how Steve works it sounds as though you were in a position to be able to get to the core heart of these characters.
Chiwetel: We had this kind of fundamental thing that Solomon Northup had the ability and the faculty to write about his experiences in this incredibly detailed way so soon after these things happened to him, when they were very fresh in his mind and he was able to write these things out in a way that was both poetic and has a great amount of humility but also very revealing of his character. But then as a first person narrative just of the time and of the people that he met, how he encountered them how he saw the world and it has given us -- to me this book has always kind of been this gift to the modern world, to any age. To have a first person account from so deep inside the experience, so deep inside the slave shack, that just calls out, cries out this is what happened and it has this power of its own reality. And going through it and having the experience and being connected to that experience and to Solomon and his journey, I was constantly reminded, by the book and by what Steve and John Ridley have done with the screenplay, you could feel its truth, you could touch its tangible reality that everything that he describes feels complex in the way that people are complex and three dimensional in the way that people are. And all the relationships, and all the personalities, and characters completely involve you in their system, in the society and it is a kind of a slice of this entire reality and that was the most powerful touch point to me when I first read the screenplay and for a while for a few weeks before I’d really engaged with the biography I saw this story as a kind of overall story about something that happened to a person, this man, but I didn’t see it in the way that it is, I didn’t see it accurately until later when I realized that it’s actually about this specific individual, about Solomon and his attitude to the world and his world view that made it possible for him to survive this experience with his mind intact the way he did.
Zoë: I think the fact we get introduced to him as really a whole being really makes a difference to our experience of his story of the film.
One of the things I’m noticing are that all four of us here on stage are not Americans. The three people at this end [Chiwetel, Steve, Zoë] were born and grew up in England, you, I think [Lupita] were born in Mexico and grew up in Kenya. Do you think there’s an advantage to being non-Americans in telling this story?
Steve: I’m not nationalist so I don’t really care. Slavery is not American, it’s world. I’m from the diaspora. The only thing different between me and a person born here of African descent is their boat went right and my boat went left. My mother and father were on that boat, you know, and my sister and me were on that other boat, that’s the difference. So we can move forward, next question.
Zoë: I ask partly because my experience of race in America has been very different to my experience of race in England. So I take what you’re saying.
Steve: Please go on, I didn’t mean to stop you, that’s interesting what you said, sorry: your experience of race in England was different to your experience of race here? How so? It’s interesting, sorry.
Zoë: It was a dual thing. I think that there are ways, and I would relate this back to the film, that we read culture in people. In people’s behavior, in the way that they are, that kind of thing. And the way that I read the culture of Americans in general when I first came here was really different. And I think it was the experience of seeing that people of color in America had lived through a time in which within living memory there had been segregation, and within family memory there had been slavery on this land. There are subtleties in that that as somebody who grew up in a country that has its own racism, let’s face it, that was really different. So really in asking that question I’m wondering whether you’re perhaps less encumbered by the American slave narrative. [SM thinks, stumbles over the beginning of his response] And you might just say no…
Steve: No no no, that’s interesting, that’s fascinating, the whole debate is interesting, it’s fascinating to me. What I would say about that is that I, as far as that is concerned, my parents are from the West Indies, my father is from Grenada my mother was from there but she was born in Trinidad. And within that, look, Malcolm X’s mother was born in Grenada, she’s Grenadian. Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the phrase “black power” is from Trinidad. It’s much more complex than talking about you’re American or British or European and the Americas. We could talk about South America, talk about Brazil, it’s slightly more complex than any kind of nationality. Within living memory of course, talking to my grandmother, who passed away recently, she talked about how her mother was a slave, so there’s no real difference other than the fact of geography, that’s about it.
Zoë: I guess in part as well, in seeing the film, I wonder if an American director and possibly American actors might have come to this with a different responsibility.
Chiwetel: Who knows, I’ve never walked a day in another man’s shoes. I know this story is about something very universal, it’s about a very universal history. Slavery is one aspect of that but it speaks to and what Solomon’s story always spoke to, to me, is something that involves everybody it is about the ideas of human respect, human dignity and how those things, in very specific circumstances are dealt with. This is obviously 95% of the people who were involved in the making of this film on every level are Americans, it’s a very American story, it’s set in a very American place. There’s an international aspect because some of the key people in the film, in making the film are from other countries but that is also, to me, correct! This is an international, it has an international reality to my mind.
Steve: It’s like Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier, these classic black American actors who actually are from the West Indies. I remember a line, it’s like James Brown saying, “it’s not who you are it’s where you’re at.” So that’s what it is for me.
Zoë: That’s great. I think that’s a part of the power of the film as well that it hits the universality of the story because it just connects with character in an extraordinary way.
Let’s open it up to questions from the audience, ooh, many, ok.
Q1: Mr. McQueen and cast, fabulous film. In this film and in Shame you tackled two very difficult topics and portrayed them in a very unflinching, unstinting way that I think is very challenging to audiences. Where do you draw the line? I’m sure that some of the people who fund your films and want to distribute your films would probably be more comfortable if you were less unflinching ---
Steve: I draw my line at the truth, that’s it.
Zoë: Truth will out. Let’s take another question.
Q2: My question is for Mr. McQueen but first, I’m so sorry I have to say, that I believe Children of Men was the best film of the last decade and your character [addressing Chiwetel] had a lot to do with it. It’s just surreal to see you sitting right there. So, thank you for doing that role.
I was curious about the last scene in the film, he comes in and his family is standing there. Obviously modern people are more effusive, but is it historically accurate that they just stood there and stared at him or was that your choice to allow us to focus on Solomon’s emotions? Because I just expected them to kind of rush up and knock him over and they didn’t.
Steve: I think you answered the question yourself, it’s like 1853 not 2013, that’s how it is. There’s etiquette, there’s a formalism, there’s certain kind of formal approach, it’s respect, it’s a different way of how people were. The language, of course, we’re not speaking the same as we did 160 years ago, there are different ways of how people respond and react to it. And for me it was quite humbling and quite beautiful in a way, this restraint, when you really want to shout, but it wasn’t the correct thing to do. For me it’s quite beautiful, anyway. That’s that.
Q3: This is for Mr. McQueen. Thank you so much for this. It’s been almost 100 years since Birth of a Nation and I think for the first full-blooded view of the shame of the nation I want to thank you for this work. You mentioned the canon being quite empty. How did that inform the way, the story you looked for, because of cinema’s absence of a slavery story like this, what your choice was of the story you wanted to tell, how was it informed by cinema’s own lack of telling this story?
Steve: It wasn’t really informed by cinema at all, it was informed by the book. I didn’t really look at any other film references. The book was enough, it’s so rich – you turn the page and I had images in my head. Filmic references weren't necessary, the landscape is so rich. You have a camera, you try and find stuff. Sometimes having other people’s images or films in your head it’s too…too busy. When it’s actually right in front of you, within reality. So we obviously looked at the book, and just found things as we were working in these great plantations.
Zoë: I think actually, you know there are so many people who approach their work by looking at other films or working with genre, and you don’t do that. I feel that one of the great powers of the film is the originality of the way that you work.
Steve: For me it’s almost like being blindfolded and thrown into someone’s apartment and having to sort of negotiate yourself around that particular space using your other senses, taste or smell, or your hearing. It’s a different way, obviously, of trying to sort of navigate your way around a room. And finally you’ll get familiar with it and you’ll find it. When you do that obviously you bring different sensibilities to certain things rather than the obvious ones. And that’s kind of interesting.
Zoë: Do you do that as much in the editing room as you do on set?
Steve: Mmm, yeah. I’m wound up to go one way and that’s it.
Zoë: We’re glad you’re wound that way.
Q4: My question is for Mr. McQueen. One of the more moving scenes in the film was the one-shot scene, done in a oner, where Lupita was whipped. I noticed that that scene was hand-held. What informed your choice to do that? And with your history of doing a lot of really long oners, when do you choose to do oners and when do you choose to do traditional coverage?
Steve: I don’t do coverage, for me it’s a waste of time just because I know what I want. I was very fortunate enough to have been given a super 8 camera when I was, well I wasn’t quite 18. And what happened was super 8 was so expensive that you couldn’t just shoot willy-nilly like people do now with their cameras. What happened was I had to be very precious with what I shot so I used to look in the lens and when I found what I wanted then I would shoot. So that trained me to look before I actually would shoot – I didn’t spray like an AK47 everywhere and get footage, I would actively look, before I saw something, and it actually trained me, trained my eye. The whole idea of the one take, of the scene where Patsy gets whipped was all about being in real time, it wasn’t about flexing one’s muscle in one take it was about not letting the audience off the hook at that moment, being present at that time. And it was about the storm, almost like whirling dervishes getting close and then spinning and then close to the girl and then spin and spin and spin to the point where we get Mr. Epps doing his anti-clockwise whipping and that’s the storm. If I had cut in that for reactions or whatever, it would have allowed for breathing space for the audience and I didn’t want that, I wanted them to be there and be present at that moment. And then of course cut when, obviously, we ended the scene when Patsy collapses, we end [with the servant]. It brings it to the fore, it brings it into a strong place.
Q5: First of all from the bottom of my heart, I’m so glad you made this film. I write for Revolution newspaper and as I was watching this I felt there was more truth in this film about where the wealth and power of this country came from than a dozen documentaries about the founding fathers. My question has to do – you mentioned wanting to have 12 Years A Slave in every schoolroom but my question has to do with, what kind of discussion, argument, debate do you expect this to provoke or perhaps---
Chiwetel: …I felt it as important to the point where I had to take pause before I accepted the job—
Steve: He said no!
Zoë: Did you, really?
Chiwetel: I, ah, it’s been a subject of some debate. I couldn’t give an immediate yes, which I think was part and parcel the nature of the story. And truth is, there’s a whole other thing that happens as well which has nothing to do with the kind of wider aspects of…there’s personal things, you know. I’m an actor and I have my own senses of what my own limitations are which are sometimes false but I sometimes have that voice in my head. I’m a creative person and I get a script and you know you wait all your life for these great stories that great script, you’re running all over the world you’re hassling your agent and then suddenly you’re presented with something really remarkable and your first instinct is to say, “I don’t know if I can do this, actually.” And of course I was confronted with that, with that reality, it didn’t take anybody in a sense to convince me out of that, but I went back to the book and I went back to the screenplay and I found that point of contact for me, which was in the end, Solomon. In a weird way I suppose that comes towards answering your question that the journeys that you make in telling stories are personal to you and how you tell them and what your journey is with them is about what your heart tells you, what you feel, what your own journey is. So I wasn’t considering it in the sense of the wider aspect of its own reality, I knew that I felt it was important and I felt Solomon was someone that had been ultimately forgotten, that shouldn’t be, and what he went through shouldn’t be, ever. So ultimately I hope that’s what people take away from it.
Lupita: I just want to say that what I’m excited about in sharing this film is it gives us a common story, a common reference point to start talking about things. When I first watched this film, I watched it with my team and my best friend. My best friend is half black and my team, my agent and my manager are both white, and the first time we left, after about an hour of crying, and went to a restaurant and had a conversation about our relationship with the opposite, with the other races in a way that I don’t think would have happened without this film. Those are the kinds of things that I’m excited are happening because that’s the power of film. What seems so distant in the past is brought to the present.