The quip about his name is no longer funny, is it? Not like it was in the first place. However, there is something warming about the fact that when the name Steve McQueen is mention in a conversation about film, it may mean an acclaimed black British filmmaker as opposed to how everyone feels about The Great Escape. Poor attempts at wit aside, Steve McQueen’s move from Turner Prize-winning video artist to Oscar Winning Director is more than a little noteworthy, despite his previous love for Tottenham Hotspur.
Unlike that team’s somewhat unfortunate near miss of Premier League gold in the 2015-16 season, McQueen is a director that has always had his goals in sight. As a filmmaker, his films hit home with a raw intensity which is only matched by a few of his peers. The most absorbing aspect of McQueen’s work is how he treats form in order to communicate his message across to an audience. Of his three previous films, there’s never a feeling of having thoughts and feelings bogged down by damp, talkative narration via dialogue. Most of his more powerful moments are made via coordinated match cuts and visual metaphor.
In Hunger (2008) a single snowflake lands and melts on a prison guard’s battered knuckles as if to highlight the vast amount of slave needed to absorb the pain of the bruised appendages. A pivotal sequence in Shame (2011) features Sissy (Carry Mulligan) singing a soft-voiced rendition of New York, New York to her brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender). The core of the scene is merely a shot-reverse shot of the faces of Fassbender and Mulligan and yet the cracked emotion in Sissy’s voice, the reaction in Brandon’s face tells everything we need to know despite telling us very little. Whatever happened between them, between their family, has pushed them away from each other down the two separate paths to which they inhabit.
McQueen’s work is at times grim and uncompromising, yet startling in their humanity. Hunger, which focuses on the 1981 hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Northern Island, tackles a sensitive subject not by taking a true forcible side of the events of the troubles – although the film’s main attention is on the prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), but by presenting the events in a straight, unromantic manner. It displays the events as an ever-rising arms race. We first meet the Republican prisoners amidst a “dirty protest”. The opening act is near silent as we’re forced to contend with their abject conditions. The story is told through action, expression, and lingering stares. Food riots in the corner. Excrement covers the walls. Beatings occur regularly, and yet we contend and connect with characters wordless interaction. We see and understand it as a way of survival. It’s near minutes before we truly meet the main character of Bobby, but it’s through this sickening environment as well a truly arresting discussion of morality between Bobby and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) we delve into the crux of the text. What one is willing to sacrifice for their freedom.
Shame also deals with a man who is trapped. Only this time the confines are seemed purely emotional. Brandon (Fassbender) is a New York Executive locked in a routine of meaningless sexual gratification. Although handsome and charming, his calm demeanour not only hides his sexual craving, but it renders him impotent when it comes to building a truly intimate relationship. His routine is shattered by an impromptu visit from his sister Sissy (Mulligan). The relationship is an abrasive one, with Sissy’s impulsive and dependent behaviour causing friction between Brendon’s sexual lifestyle.
Shame is McQueen’s most accomplished and considered work. It is a conflicting and difficult piece in which the filmmaker utilises his knowledge of the craft most effectively. A shot of Brendon masturbating in the shower cuts to a later shot of Brendon on the Subway blurred and out of focus; a simple transition seemingly suggesting the lack of definition that Brendon’s sexual actions have now scrubbed from him.
One of the film’s most arresting moments (bar the avalanche of sexual trysts at the film’s climax) has Brendon watching a woman on the subway. As he holds an unwavering gaze, the woman’s face portrays a mixture of welcome, then mixture, then fear. As she purposely moves away from him, he positions himself uncomfortably closer. It’s revealed that this woman is married, and the predatory moment drops to a new level of complications. Especially as the woman’s conduct first hinted attraction. As she leaves a foot chase begins, but Brendon loses sight of the woman through a cascade of commuters. He is literally chasing intimacy.
A later scene has an agitated Brendon going on a nighttime run to escape the fact that his sister has decided to sleep with his adulterous boss. The power of the sequence stems from how static McQueen has kept the camera until that moment. The view of New York in shame with its gridded street system is a location of smothering isolation. The run is an attempt to escape. Release. As the film continues on, the semi-dependent relationship that exists between Brendon and Sissy becomes more fraught with both characters find their own self-destructive ways in order to find release.
For Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave, the idea of release feels like a falsehood. Based on true events, the film details the story of Northup; a New York State-born free African-American fiddler who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. An ordeal that lasts for the titular 12 years. Despite McQueen’s collaboration with regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, giving the film a painted style and a tremendous sense of place and history, it’s perhaps this sense of history that has dampened the view of this film. Race and identity have become even more prominent in conversations about cinema, yet five years on 12 Years a Slave isn’t perhaps talked about as much as expected. Possibly due to its unblinking view of the systematic racism that the film portrays. It never sugar-coats the unrelenting brutality of the time, resulting in a difficult conversation piece. Not only can this can be said of all of McQueen’s films, but also on the very idea of the results of structural oppression itself. Particularly when the current political positioning is placed under the microscope.
Looking back at 12 Years a Slave now, one of the film’s biggest standouts is despite holding some of McQueen’s more striking compositions, it’s at times his most conventional film in terms of structure. Hunger is a loosely joined set of vignettes that fold into a conclusion. Shame feels similar. In Hunger, Bobby Sands is unyieldingly rigid in his decisions to strike. His actions defy a Mckee style definition of character/story growth. Shame‘s ending leaves us stranded as to how Brandon will move on from the incident involving his sister. Both films have sequences and scene that linger because of their frayed edges. 12 Years a Slave is the film that shows Solomon go from dignified freeman to broken slave, growing to something different and having a story which has a far more conclusive feeling in terms of narrative as it’s often considered in modern stories. It’s also McQueen most conversational, with John Ridley’s screenplay belying the film’s intention of being more accessible.
The film still holds a remarkable amount of power. The initial realisation of capture has Solomon screaming for help as the film raises above his cell displaying The White House standing proudly in the background. Sarah Paulson’s venomous racism and Lady Macbeth style manipulation becomes even more shuddering in the age of the current Republican presidency and the voting statistics towards the likes of Ted Cruz. The sequence where Solomon is strung up and hung by his neck with only his tiptoes providing respite is chilling in its quiet banality. Children play joyfully in the background while a black man struggles to breathe.
Such a moment becomes even more resonant when we consider the death of Eric Garner by physical restraint from white NYPD policemen only a year after this film’s release. Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” not only became a chant of protest against continuing police brutality against people of colour but combined with McQueen’s film, the scene in 12 Years a Slave feels like an unbelievably prophetic echo that has reached the audience’s conscious 170 years later.
A small moment late on in the film in where Solomon has passed on some personal details in order to gain proof of his freedom has McQueen capture Ejiofor’s face in deep thought. By this time we’ve already seen what has happened when Solomon tried to prove himself before. Now we see his face move across from hope, to fear, to despair in a matter of seconds. A brief moment in which we know what his body has been through. This last chance feels like it could be for his soul.
This is where the power in McQueen’s work lies. His images are unflinching and evocative. Until his new feature, Widows, his films have been effective illustrations of men finding themselves both mentally and physically confined. Their struggles are ones of freedom; whether personal or political. To be able to capture and almost bottle such complicated yet powerful feelings are so very difficult for a filmmaker to capture. McQueen has already done this thrice in the last decade. Not bad for a Tottenham lad.