Ebenezer Bamgboye on Steve McQueen
McQueen: What Maketh The Man?
Picture the scene. It is London in the early eighties; Thatcherite era. A thirteen year old, dark skinned, dyslexic, working class boy with a lazy eye (and thus an eye patch) gets some news: he is going to be placed in the third and lowest tier of his school’s hierarchy. A class for those destined to become manual labourers, plumbers and builders. His destiny has been set, and years later the headmaster of the school himself will admit openly that institutional racism has had its part to play in this decision.
You might think this is merely the story of one of the many young black men from that time period (and beyond) railing against a system that would have inspired Kafka himself. Forced to become nothing more than what they had been told that they were; bottom tier. One certainly would not think that this is the origin story of a future Turner Prize winner, multiple BAFTA winner, Oscar winner, knighthood recipient and general artistic pioneer both domestically and abroad. They say you cannot be what you cannot see… unless you are exceptional. If that is a true proposition, said exceptionality was doled out in ample measure within Sir Steven Rodney McQueen CBE.
Born and raised in Ealing, McQueen began to find his feet after being accepted in the Chelsea College of Arts off the strength of an A-Level Art portfolio. Upon completion, he decided to take his abilities a step further by doing a Fine Art degree at Goldsmiths University. Following this, he was accepted into the highly prestigious filmmaking masters programme at NYU, the training ground for figures such as Martin Scorsese, Joel Coen and Oliver Stone amongst many others. However, feeling like the course was stifling his creativity rather than nurturing it, he left after three months and returned back to London. Here, he spent the next 20 years in a successful career as an artist, specialising in short form videographic art pieces and beating Tracey Emin’s infamous My Bed piece to win the Turner Prize in 1999. However it was not until 2008 that he managed to secure the funding to make his first feature length piece, Hunger, a visceral account of the Northern Irish 1981 hunger strike. This won him the BAFTA for Best Newcomer and provided the leverage to keep making films. Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows were what followed, the middle of which won him the Oscar for Best Picture; the first black man in history to do so.
So, with a body of work with such breadth, how do we define such a man? The disciplines he operates in range from intimate photographic and videographic installations to feature films that themselves exist across a broad range of genres. The contexts he explores range from 1980s Northern Ireland to 1990s New York, to the slavery era deep south of America to modern day Chicago. His influences range from the ‘ripping up of the rulebook’ nature of the Nouvelle Vague (Godard in particular) and its precursor in Jean Vigo to the unabashed radicalism of 80s queer cinema to the exuberance of Billy Wilder to perhaps his most obvious comparison, Andy Warhol (given that he, too, made short form videographic artworks as well as feature length cinema). What is the common thread throughout all this? If there is one at all.
Maybe there is something to be found in his visual style? Perhaps the most obvious and laboured McQueen idiosyncrasy is his use of continuity (when the camera does not cut away for an extended period). A technique perhaps seen earliest in the classics of Max Ophuls, it has gained increased notoriety of late due to highly acclaimed films Birdman (Iniarritu), and 1917 (Mendes), both of which ostensibly do not cut away for the entire film. However, the use of this technique is well attested in between these poles; my personal favourite instantiation being in the domestic thrillers of Christian Mungiu.
McQueen is in good company then, in his deployment of this method: In Hunger, the camera sits motionless for seventeen minutes as Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham), backlit, discuss the morality of a hunger strike with the expectation of death; in Shame, the camera tracks sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) running through New York for three minutes, escaping from his flat where is boss is sleeping with his sister in his bed; In 12 Years a Slave, with the camera moving but not cutting, we spectate the lengthy, savage whipping of slave Patsy (Lupita Nyongo) by slave-owner Epps and in Widows there is the infamous scene where the camera stays on the outside of a blackened car windscreen as we move from a poor to a wealthy part of Chicago whilst hearing an insidious conversation within the car. When asked about this tool, McQueen often becomes irritated, wary of it being seen as a cheap gimmick. He insists, it is not about the shots it is about the effects. Well no doubt the effects are visceral in the creation of tension and forcing audiences to focus.
This is part and parcel of a further visual commonality within McQueen’s work; the sheer density of what is going on in the frame and a general level of detail that could rival Bresson. As aforesaid, McQueen began making short form videographic art pieces. One of them, Illuminier, features a naked figure (played by McQueen himself) lying alone in a darkened Parisian hotel room; a deliberate allusion to this classic image found in the work fine artists such as Cezanne. His body is being illuminated solely by a TV screen playing a documentary about military action in Afghanistan; the light of violence. The piece serves as powerful symbol of the dark, often violent antecedents that have led to the current presence of westerners in European society. It is a picture that paints a thousand words. Such artworks put him in great stead for his later features. Take almost any ten second excerpt from one of his films and you will find something that is as rich, detailed and multi-layered as this, often without using words, whether it is the camera panning slowly over a floor full of the urine of political prisoners that resembles a map whilst the disembodied and compassionless voice of Margaret Thatcher plays in the background or whether it is the image of Solomon Northup’s letter, evidence of a failed attempt to escape, burning slowly into embers within a pitch black frame as a symbol of his own hope dying.
The use of the body in Illuminier is a further motif that crops up in many of these earlier art pieces and in his features. In Hunger we watch a brutal scene where prisoners are stripped, beaten, anally and orally probed then forcefully shaved and bathed with such roughness that it becomes bloody. Later on we are shown the slow deterioration of Bobby’s body into nothing as he starves himself, in painstaking detail. As if we did not get our fill of Fassbender nudity in Hunger, In Shame (a film about sex addiction) his penis is obnoxiously thrust into our faces at the start of the film and later on we see him participate in a graphic group sex scene in garish light as the camera focuses in on individual body parts interacting. Furthermore, in 12 Years a Slave we see the skin literally flaking off of Patsy’s naked body with each strike of the whip. Each of these visceral, body centred images confront audiences with the horror of what the human body has gone through. These films are ruthless in their unwillingness to let audiences off the hook.
The list of visual idiosyncrasies could go on, from the prominence of masturbation in his work (it really does crop up a lot!); the dynamic, immersive use of sound and the use of darkness and obscuration to cite a few further examples. It is clear, then, that there is a visual consistency across McQueen’s body of work. But I feel we must go deeper, beyond the colours and shapes. I feel there is even more to discover in regards to what defines him.
Perhaps there is something to be found in terms of narrative. For a start, he loves it. In an interview with Art Curator Stuart Comer he states that his love of stories is one thing that that distinguishes him from the pioneers of the 80s many of which, he claims, prioritised politics over story. Godard, a further one of McQueen’s influences, famously eschewed the idea of ‘telling a story’, stating instead that he prefers to see his films as visual essays. The same cannot be said of McQueen. In each of his works we are given a protagonist on a key journey fraught with conflict. Further narrative commonalities include his protagonists almost always being in a situation of great pressure, confinement and extremity and the narrative often playing with chronology. Some claim, however, that one missing element of McQueen’s films is any kind of access into his characters’ minds, focusing instead on showing what they do given the intense circumstances surrounding them. A step further might by to argue that the textbook interior character arc is conspicuously absent. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps it is just that McQueen’s methods in doing this are subtle. The image of sex addict Brandon running his fingers across old scars of self harm on his sister’s arm that he never noticed before, after her suicide attempt, paints a subtle but powerful image of hubris. On the other hand, perhaps this is a piece that is missing and deliberately so! McQueen’s films often depict the worst parts of western society to which his characters fall victim. Perhaps it is society that needs to do the shifting, and there that he wants the audience’s focus to be, not his characters inner psyches. All they can do is try to survive given the injustices coming their way.
This brings us to the final area that might help us to understand McQueen – his activism, both within and external to the work. In a hilarious 2011 Hollywood Reporter Roundtable, wherein Steve is the only black director, the host brings up the topic of diversity, noting how few black filmmakers even got to make a film that year. Without thinking twice, McQueen pivots the question towards the other directors and proclaims that it is ‘shameful’ and ‘bizarre’ that white directors can go their whole career without hiring black or Latino actors, creating a whitewashed movie reality that differs from actual reality. An awkward silence follows, but Steve has no regrets. This activist spirit seems to be part of his nature. It manifests itself in the work through his characters, many of which are figures that society has forgotten about. Voices that went unheard. People who were trampled underneath an oppressive and unfeeling system. Bobby Sands, Solomon Northup, the lonely and ashamed sex addict, a multi-cultural group of pre-judged women in modern day Chicago, the soldiers in the Irag War (Queen and Country) Gold Miners in South Africa (Western Deep). In his most recent artwork, he photographed every single year three class in London and showcased them both at the Tate Modern and at Tube Stations. Confronting the public with the true image of London, contrary to the whitewashed one they might have seen. This activism extends to who he platforms as part of his team also. Upcoming project Small Axe is set to launch a whole generation of young, black British performers. Likewise, he ignored the racially loaded appeals for him not to hire the ‘difficult’ Michelle Rodriguez in Widows. It does not take a genius to see how his own experience, in being written off so early, has politically charged him to recover and amplify lost voices. In a recent interview he stated that ‘our Marlon Brandos are on building sites’ and ‘driving buses’. He can say this with authority as this could so easily have been him! Although this has happened to one generation, he seems intent on ensuring this does not happen again.
So it seems we have got somewhere then. Some semblance of understanding of this man and his voice. I feel like we can say, with confidence, that McQueen is a man with a distinctive visual style, a penchant for listening to those who society has not listened to and viscerally depicting the extremity of their struggles. But perhaps, rather ironically, a certain undefinability is the final element we must add to our ‘definition’ of Steve. In an interview at ICA Boston he states he does not want to be reduced, perhaps a further consequence of the attempt to reduce him is a young teen. In this sense the breadth that we observed in his work at the start is no accident but stems from a passionate anti-pigeon hole mentality. Asked in this interview whether he would be interested in sci-fi he responded that it is funny the interviewer should ask him that, as he has been entertaining that very possibility, and to this end been in talks with some experts at Oxford University about what the future will look like. I think we know what the future will look like: bolder, brighter and more equal as a consequence of his work.
Steve’s Previous Films
Hunger (Netflix/Criterion Channel)
Shame (£2.49 on Youtube/Amazon Prime)
12 Years a Slave (4od temporarily, £2.49 Amazon Prime)
Widows (£7.99 Amazon Prime)
Steve’s Upcoming Films
Small Axe Anthology (all on BBC One and Amazon Prime) :
Red, White and Blue
Difficult to watch these. Some might be online but information about them can be find here:
(*In interviews he has mentioned these three as his biggest influences, I’ve selected a few of their highlights myself but Steve has not necessarily mentioned the specific films as influences of his)
Vivre Sa Vie (BFI Player Subscription, Criterion Channel Subscription)
Pierrot le fou (BFI Player £2.49)
A Bout de Souffle (Criterion Channel Subscription)
Le Mepris (BFI Player Subscription)
Zero de Conduite (Criterion Channel Subscription)
L’Atlante (Criterion Channel Subscription)
Chelsea Girls (tough to find)
Blow Job (tough to find)
Other Relevant Films That Perhaps Talk To Steve’s films
If you are interested in continuity:
Madame de by Max Ophuls (£3.50 BFI Player)
Touch of Evil by Orson Welles (£2.49 Youtube/Prime Video)
Rope by Alfred Hitchcock (£2.49 Prime Video)
Some of my favourite modern examples of this:
Code Unknown by Michael Haneke (Criterion Channel)
The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke (Criterion Channel)
Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days by Christian Mungiu (£2.49 Youtube)
True Detective Season 1 ep 4, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (£1.89 Prime Video)
If you are interested in the use of darkness and obscurity:
Yi Yi by Edward Yang (Criterion Channel)
A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang (Criterion Channel)
Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock (Sky/ 2.49 Prime Video)
Margaret by Kenneth Lonergan (£2.49 Prime Video)
If you are interested in heavily symbolic visual storytelling:
Everything by Andrei Tarkovsky
If you are interested in detailed, ascetic camera work:
Everything by Robert Bresson