Director says if 12 Years A Slave starts a new conversation about slavery that’ll be “about time.”

Director Steve McQueen’s lauded latest feature, 12 Years a Slave, offers frank portrayal of the American slave trade and 19th century race relations.

But according to the London-born filmmaker, there’s more to the unapologetic historical drama than viewers are initially letting on.

“This film for me is about love,” he said during a press conference at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday (7). “That’s it.”

Adapted from the 1853 autobiography of black freeman Solomon Northup (played by National Theatre-veteran Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen’s third full-length feature follows the protagonist as he tries to return to his family after being kidnapped and forced into slavery in the American south.

Following the release of 2011’s Shame, McQueen knew he wanted to tell a story about the life of a slave, but wasn’t sure how to go about doing research for the project. But after his wife handed him a copy of Northup’s memoirs, he “couldn’t let it go.”

“It was just remarkable,” he said. “Each turn of the page was a revelation.”

But for such a captivating story, McQueen was surprised by the lack of attention it had received in the 160 years since its initial publication.

“I was upset with myself that I didn’t know about this book,” he said. “But then I realized no one I knew knew about this book.”

Outside of bringing Northup’s story to the silver screen, McQueen hopes the film will inspire researchers to investigate the forgotten historical figure and other instances relating to the tumultuous time period.

“There’s been a lot of investigation into what happened to him, but nothing has occurred,” he said. “Maybe now there will be more.”

And if the film also causes critics to reexamine the cinematic depictions (or lack thereof) of the American Slave Trade—and the questions about race and identity that surround it—that’s fine by him.

“I made this movie because I wanted to tell a story about slavery—a story, which for me, hadn’t been given a platform in cinema,” he said. “If that starts a conversation, wonderful. It’ll be about time.”