After the success of Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, he was pursued by Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt's production company. Pitt wanted to work with McQueen on a project, and took his lead on the material. McQueen was interested in making a film about slavery, and was inspired when his wife brought his attention to the story of Solomon Northup.
Working with screenwriter John Ridley, McQueen set to work bringing Northup's story to the screen. Filming took place on actual plantations in Louisiana in 2012 for three months. About shooting on location, McQueen told Deadline, "Those trees have seen everything. For example, the tree that we used to show the two guys getting lynched was an actual lynching tree. It was as real as it got. We were dancing with the ghosts. Everyone was in tune in making this environment. They can see around them the same views those slaves had and the same views plantation masters had. So every day you’re reminded of that history."
McQueen was praised for his direction upon the film's release, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film. A.A. Dowd reviewed McQueen's work on the film for The AV Club: "For all the hardships he starkly depicts, McQueen knows just when to slip in an image of overwhelming, metaphoric beauty—for example, the raspberry juice that streaks down the side of a bowl, pooling at the edge like leaked tears, spilled blood, or the ink that could provide Northup with his impossible freedom. 12 Years A Slave is all about sea change, and not just for its unfortunate hero. Before everyone’s eyes, a visual virtuoso has transformed into a great storyteller."