The filmmaker and artist directed the 2013 Best Picture winner, based on the true account of Solomon Northup, a Black man who was born free but was captured and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841. He was released 12 years later.
For its strong performance and its portrayal of the brutal experiences of enslaved people, the film and McQueen received widespread praise.
Lupita Nyong’o received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Patsey, an enslaved woman.
Despite 12 Years a Slave’s successes, McQueen believes that without President Obama being in office, and the specific cultural and social moment that it represented, the film would not have had received essential funding.
Speaking at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Saturday (28 January), the Small Axe creator recalled how the film didn’t get screened at the White House due to Obama having recently referred to a police department acting “stupidly” after arresting Skip Gates, a Black professor who was suspected of breaking and entering at his own home.
“At that time, everything Obama was doing was being scrutinised,” McQueen told the audience, “and that was the theory of why 12 Years a Slave was not projected – 99 years after The Birth of a Nation – at the White House.”
The filmmaker added: “But then again, 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t have been made without Obama being president, that’s for sure. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have gotten the money.
“I think the fact that people wanted to illustrate that particular time of history when there was a Black president made the movie possible.”
McQueen was at the festival to show his latest piece of visual artwork “Sunshine State”, which marks his first since “Year 3” at Tate Britain in 2019.