Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years a Slave” was a historic success, winning three Academy Awards including Best Picture and grossing nearly $200 million on a $22 million budget. But the film‘s unflinching portrayal of the horrors of American slavery ensured that its rollout was not without controversy.

In a new interview with the New York Times to commemorate the film’s 10th anniversary, McQueen and his collaborators recalled the grueling process of getting the movie made and unveiling it to the world. Following the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where McQueen took questions from the international press. He recalls being bothered by some of the lines of questioning and forced to reevaluate his approach to promoting the film.

“We had a little bit of a… not very good press conference in Toronto,” McQueen said. “I thought the questions were a bit silly. My response wasn’t great.”

“He was a bit taken aback after having such a great premiere. It fed into this whole ‘Is it too difficult to watch?’ conversation that we were all annoyed by,” McQueen’s publicist Paula Woods said. “Before #OscarsSoWhite, people would write things that would never get written today. It’s part of the greater problem of systemic racism. I remember we were in New Orleans visiting one of the plantations with a journalist, and a man who was working there sidled up to me — with one eye on Steve — and said, ‘You know, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they say it was.’”

Still, McQueen realized that his annoyance with the discourse surrounding the film was ultimately an unhelpful distraction. He credited a conversation with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, then serving as the festival’s artistic director, with convincing him to focus on promoting the film to ensure that more people could experience its message.

“Cameron Bailey took me to one side and said, ‘You know, this movie’s more important than you,’” McQueen said. “I had to put my emotions aside and get on with the job of promoting the movie.”

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