Director Steve McQueen visited the United Nations this week to attend a special screening of his Oscar-nominated film 12 Years A Slave.
“There were moments when the film was very hard to watch, but there can be no turning away—not from the horrors of slavery as it was practiced then, and not from the forms of slavery that exist today around the world,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon after Wednesday’s event.
McQueen’s film adapts the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man who was captured and held in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana. In a Q&A session following the screening, hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell, McQueen talked about how Northup’s story came into his life.
“My wife found this book called 12 Years a Slave on the Internet,” McQueen said. “And it’s one of those funny things: sometimes things are in plain sight…When I finished it, I couldn’t believe it. How did I not know this book?”
When McQueen was asked whether dealing with such harrowing pain was a burden for him and his crew, his answer was unequivocal: “No, because we were doing something about it.”
“When we come together as a group, there’s nothing we can’t do,” he went on. “It’s when we start moaning or complaining, or ‘I should be having this,’ or ‘my suffering is more than your suffering’—it’s of no interest. When you physically do something about it in a positive light, things change. Things change in a big way.”
McQueen is working with National School Boards Association President David Pickler to bring Northup’s memoir to schools’ curriculums around the country. And as the new ambassador to the Polaris Project, a group that fights against human trafficking, McQueen is also doing something about the estimated 21 million people who live as slaves in our modern world.
The film “was a mirror,” McQueen said, “this was a mirror of what’s actually happening in our reality. That’s what cinema’s about. So it’s not about 1841, when Solomon was kidnapped, it’s actually about 2014.”