Steve McQueen: The graphic film-maker who's in the running for an Oscar

Twenty years ago his art shocked Britain; now his films are hailed as seminal. But getting from Hammersmith to Hollywood hasn’t been easy

When London-born artist/film-maker Steve McQueen was in his early twenties, he made a short film called Bear (1993) in which two naked men (one of them played by McQueen himself) confronted each other as if about to fight.

“I didn’t have a lot of money and so I thought the [best] thing you could do was use yourself and a camera,” McQueen recalled recently of the work which first helped make his name in the international art world. “These two males, are they lovers? Is it some kind of courtship? Are they wrestling? What is this ambiguous relationship? That is what I was interested in.”

Twenty years on, with McQueen established as one of the most prominent British film directors of his generation, it is easy to find traces of Bear in his feature films. He still seems preoccupied with violence, sexuality and with portraying the captive male body.

McQueen’s latest feature, 12 Years a Slave, is being talked up as an Oscar prospect. It is a gruelling and very disturbing drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-civil war United States. Like all of McQueen’s feature films, it can be taken both as a naturalistic drama about a man in an extreme situation and as a self-conscious exploration of the same themes the artist was already addressing in his earlier work.

As Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, a leading scholar of black history and a consultant on the film, recently wrote: “There have been all too few films that have captured, or even attempted to convey, the truth of the experience of slavery, from the slave’s point of view.”

Like Solomon Northup’s own memoir, the film (Gates believes) gives a “sober presentation of American slavery as it really was, interwoven with the universal themes of identity, betrayal, brutality and the need to keep faith in order to survive confrontations with the evils in man.”

Brad Pitt’s character in the film sums up what audiences are likely to feel watching the movie. As he tells Solomon: “Your story is amazing in a no-good way.” Most viewers will be startled and shocked by what the film reveals about the true nature of slavery. It’s not that McQueen is telling us anything new (Northup’s memoir was first published in 1853), more that he is reminding us in graphic detail of a historical episode we’ve tried very hard to ignore. At the same time, this is very recognisably a McQueen movie – an existential story about a man alone.

When he was dramatising the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in his first feature Hunger (a film he has described as being “drenched in politics”), McQueen seemed as interested in the suffering of the main character (played by his regular collaborator Michael Fassbender) as in the intricacies of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He claimed the inspiration for making the film came from watching TV broadcasts covering the Bobby Sands story when he was a kid growing up in London. He was fascinated by the idea of a man who stopped eating and willed his own martyrdom.

On the face of it, Shame (2011) was a film in an entirely different register from Hunger or 12 Years a Slave. This was a movie about sex addiction. To compare the plight of Brandon (Fassbender), the promiscuous ad executive, to that of Bobby Sands or Solomon Northup is obviously absurd. Nonetheless, this too was a closely focused study of freedom and imprisonment. As the director commented of the characters in Shame and Hunger: “One imprisons himself through sexual activity, while the other frees himself by abstaining from eating.”

McQueen was born in London in 1969 to working-class West Indian parents. (His father was from Grenada, his mother from Trinidad.) He went to school at Drayton Manor High School, whose other notable former students include musician Rick Wakeman and footballer Peter Crouch. A few years after Bear, McQueen made Deadpan (1997), an experimental riposte to a cyclone scene in Buster Keaton’s silent film Steamboat Bill (1928). We see the façade of a building falling down on a man (McQueen himself). Miraculously, he is unhurt. There is an open window in the collapsing building. The man just happens to be standing where that window lands. What Keaton played as slapstick was turned by McQueen into a disquieting mini-drama about fate and survival.

When McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1999, the jury talked of its admiration for “the poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and economy of means”. Since then, he has been an official war artist in Iraq (2006), and he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Now, though, his feature films inevitably eclipse his other activities in terms of public recognition. In interviews, McQueen has stated that he doesn’t see any great difference in the installations he makes for galleries and his narrative feature films. What all his work shares is a confrontational quality and a very stark intensity. You don’t find much frivolity or humour in his universe.

In 1993, McQueen briefly attended New York University’s Tisch School for film. “The reason I wanted to go there was because Scorsese, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch were participants there,” he said. His father had told him that he should “get a trade” while his mother advised him to do what he wanted. He saw film-making as the perfect way of combining a craft with a passion and pleasing his parents in the process but his experience at NYU was disillusioning. As an art student at Chelsea College of Art and Design and Goldsmiths College, he had been given a creative freedom that was denied him at film school. He left NYU after only three months, complaining about not being allowed “to throw the camera in the air” and about being surrounded by “a lot of rich kids with no talent”.

The fact that McQueen had wanted to go to NYU in the first place suggests that his curiosity about making narrative feature-length movies was there early. The rapidity with which he dropped out pointed to his combative nature. McQueen (who has been based in Amsterdam since the mid-1990s) may have flourished in the British art world of the 1990s, being made an OBE and then a CBE, but he has never been part of the British art establishment. His comments about the art world have often been as waspish as those he made about NYU film school. “I am fed up with the art world,” McQueen told one newspaper in 2009. “It doesn’t go much further than its own tail and it gets boring.”

12 Years a Slave is a conventional enough movie in terms of its structure. What makes it so powerful is its uncompromising treatment of very tough subject matter. The story’s impact, the director has suggested, would have been lessened if it had been told in any other medium than cinema. He said: “What cinema can do is be so much more powerful in one punch rather than in 12 rounds.”

Life in brief

Born: 9 October 1969, London.

Family: Born to working-class West Indian parents. Lives in Amsterdam with his partner Bianca Stigter and their two children.

Education: Drayton Manor High School; Hammersmith and West London College; art and design at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Interest in film developed while studying fine art at Goldsmiths College.

Career: His minimalistic films were shown in enclosed space of art galleries. His first works, Bear (1993) and Deadpan (1997) were black and white and silent. Drumroll (1998) was his first sound and multiple images film. He won the Turner Prize in 1999. First feature film Hunger (2008) told the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Second feature film Shame (2011) starred regular collaborator Michael Fassbender. Latest film 12 Years a Slave is on general release next month.

He says: “People are extraordinarily intelligent. They don’t want to be spoonfed a story. They want to be stimulated. That’s why TV is interesting right now but TV can’t do what cinema does.”

They say: The Turner Prize jury admired “the poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and economy of means”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?