On the Record With ... Steve McQueen

The director of 12 Years A Slave is passionate about preserving our history and proves that excellence is colorblind.

Posted: 02/25/2014 12:00 AM EST

When I was growing up we didn’t have Black History Month. It was something that I found out about when I was studying film at New York University. In England, the Black history education was very, very poor. When I was growing up, you were introduced to it through Roots, for example. I was 7 years old when it came out in 1977 and it was a sort of tidal wave that happened in Britain. It’s one of the most revered television movies ever. Being 7 years old and being introduced to the history was very important in my upbringing.

Now in Britain that has been rectified. There is a Black History Month in February and kids are much more clued in about an aspect of the history, which was slavery. What’s been so interesting about 12 Years a Slave is the amount of government support from Britain that I’ve had in trying to get this book into schools. It’s been amazing. Unfortunately, no one has reached out to me in the U.S. to get the book in schools. Nevertheless, there have been entrepreneurs and talented people who are all trying to make inroads and impressions into that to get the book in schools in the US.

Personally, I say 14 years old is a good age to read this book. I think back to where I was in my life when I was 13 and this book would have been important to me. I think that’s the ideal age to introduce the book to kids. 13 or 14 is a critical age. I was in trouble as a young Black man in Britain. I had been marked in a way at school. The school system marked me as a student headed for a career in manual labor, nothing more. What I needed at that time was some idea of perspective of history. Not just of the slave history, because that’s only an aspect of my history and Black people. But I needed a deep understanding of Africa and a deep understanding of the Diaspora. That would have been very encouraging and very inspirational. I hate this word “role model,” but to actually have someone who looks like you and is doing something amazing is inspirational.

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When I was in elementary and high school, the kids who were academically talented were designated for a high-achievers track, but of course there are late developers. They called it “streaming.” Using a running analogy, there are sprinters and some people are middle distance runners who then catch up. That wasn’t taken into account when I was in school. One needs to monitor students over time. I don’t know what the answer is, but all I do know is that one shouldn’t give up on students and dump them in a situation, a road to nowhere, which is what happened to me.

Thankfully, I was always interested in art and I could always draw as a kid. Art gave me the aspiration, the inquisitiveness and the desire to advance my understanding, to go further than the reach of my own arm. I was lucky. It was part luck, and there’s a part of my being hard-headed because I come from a very hard-headed family. I wouldn’t accept “No.” I got myself to NYU because I wouldn’t accept “No.”

I was fortunate to grow up in London where race was present, but it wasn’t prevalent. It wasn’t the be all and end all. It was more about if you were cool or not. So I grew up in an environment where there were Iranians, Pakistanis, Greeks, Italians, Polish, West Indian, Africans. All we cared about was football [aka soccer] and having fun and music. As a child, I didn’t have role models, but it had more to do with who I thought was interesting. I remember when I was first introduced to Woody Allen for example. It was amazing. Or Prince or Eddie Murphy. It was so random but it was all about excellence. I was interested in great people doing interesting stuff. In some ways that was the inspiration. Race didn’t matter. It was more about what you do rather than who you are.

What’s interesting, for me at least, is when I’m in America that race becomes this huge thing. It’s not to say that race is not a big issue in Europe; far from it. But what I mean is I don’t care about race. I honestly don’t. What I care about is doing the best I can. Often times you are confronted by how people look at you and how they perceive you and then one has to deal with that. I’m a human being, I’m part of the human race, within that I’m just interested in doing the best I can and trying to be excellent in what I do. I will not allow anything to go out that I do which is not up to par. For me it has to be brilliant. If it’s not brilliant there is no point in doing it. It has to be brilliant. That’s what I’m about. End of story.

Fresh off of a Golden Globe awards win, Steve McQueen is the British artist and filmmaker behind the film ”12 Years a Slave. He is also the genius behind the 2008 film Hunger and Shame in 2011. One of his passion projects is to see the original book by Solomon Northup be required reading for school children in America and the UK.

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(Photo: Djeneba Aduayom)

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