‘12 Years A Slave’: Steve McQueen says he was told “a movie with black leads wouldn’t make any money”

The Oscar-winning movie was a big box office success between 2013-14

Steve McQueen has revealed that he was told that “a movie with black leads wouldn’t make any money” while he was making the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave.

The director’s acclaimed 2012 film, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, starred Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o in leading roles.

The movie went on to gross over $187 million (£144.56 million) internationally at the box office. Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress and the film itself won Best Picture among a hat-trick of triumphs at the 2014 Academy Awards, where the film earned a total of nine nominations — including Best Actor for Ejiofor.


Reflecting on the film in a new interview with The Big Issue, McQueen said that while the success of 12 Years A Slave “opened a lot of doors for other filmmakers”, he did have to field a number of concerns while making the movie.

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen (Picture: Getty)

“Everyone was telling me ‘no’ and I didn’t take any notice, just like before,” McQueen said. “I was told a movie with black leads wouldn’t make any money internationally, especially one about slavery — and that was by someone supportive of the movie!

“That picture changed a lot. I’m very grateful. The picture itself won Best Picture [at the 2014 Oscars] and I’m extremely proud of it, but it’s what came after that I’m especially proud of.

“It was a difficult film to make. Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah Paulson – all these people risked a lot.”

McQueen added that “sometimes you have to ruffle feathers. I think about my art and my movies, and to me it’s all about taking risks. You’ve got to throw yourself a curveball and experiment.”


McQueen’s next project, the TV series Small Axe, is set to air on the BBC later this year.