In those scenes, and several others, you’re obviously letting the audience feel the impact of what these characters are going through, the physical and the mental, but it’s not sadistic. It feels much more exploratory in a way. Do you try to avoid sadism in that, and if so, how are you trying to toe that line?
I didn’t even think of that.

I guess that means you’re not sadistic if you didn’t even think about it.
Well, no. I’m telling a story about humanity. Either you’re making a film about slavery or you’re not. And I wanted to make a film about slavery and of human dignity. It was about Solomon holding on to his dignity through a very brutal regime, that’s it.

Do you ever think about the audience throughout it, like what can they handle?
Yes, very much. Oh, handle? In this case, no. I have to show what I have to show. I mean, if I don’t sort of portray slavery, I can’t pull punches in this situation. The only reason I’m here, because you know, people suffered and died for my freedom, and therefore, I can not pull punches on them. It would be a disservice to them. It would be a disservice to Solomon. The book is far more, you could say, unfortunate than the film, but we have to show it. It’s like having a Holocaust picture without showing brutality. You have to do that. You have to go there.

But you have to show a specific amount. You choose how much of that.
Oh, for sure, because the narrative dictates where you need it and where you don’t. You plot it. You plot it throughout the narrative. I think there are five acts of violence, you can say, within 2 hours and 13 minutes, but they have to show it, because otherwise, if you don’t show it, then you’re not having a film about slavery, and it’s actually not a discussion, you know. It can’t be a discussion.Why were so many people held in bondage for such a long period of time? How did they reinforce it? How did they maintain it? I mean, I couldn’t make a film about a hunger strike without you know, seeing someone who was on the verge of dying from starvation. It wouldn’t be a movie.

For this and both of your previous movies, some people have said, “You need to see this, but it’s kind of hard to watch again.” Is that a valid argument to you?
For me, I wanted to make a movie about slavery. You know, I was very ashamed as a child, I remember my first memories as a little boy, I was very ashamed of slavery. I didn’t know, because I wasn’t taught about slavery. All I knew was that people like me, or who looked like me, were slaves, and I didn’t know anything about it. And now through obviously learning about it and finding out what happened and how it happened, I want to embrace that part, that small part of my history as a necessity.

This is a global history, but also it’s a part of American history and the fact of the matter is that just as people have confronted the Holocaust, people have to confront the recent past of slavery. Now, I don’t know how many Holocaust films have been made in the last 65 years or so, since the second world war has ended. I mean, we’re talking a lot. I’m interested in now, going back to a situation where 150 years ago, there was abolition of slavery. So, for me, it's important, vitally important, particularly because of the recent circumstances which have happened in this country-- the election of a black President, the 150 years anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the unfortunate Trayvon Martin situation, the rolling back of voting rights. I think there’s never been a better time sort of for people to look at the recent past, in order to go forward. America is a progressive country and what moves me and touches me about this country is this thing in the constitution which says, “and the right to pursue happiness”. How moving is that? So, in order for that to happen, one obviously has to look at their recent past in order to go forward and now has never been a better time to do so.

12 Years A Slave cast image via Debby Wong /

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