Steve McQueen/Gettys Image
"There's a gap in our history of representation of Black people on film. Maybe in some ways I suppose I was trying to fix that. To put that narrative down. These stories needed to be told, and I had the agency to tell them."
The above words were uttered by award-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen who, as an Afro-Caribbean man in a majority-white society, was tired of seeing his people, our people, silenced in the British film and television industries. No one dared to take the wheel and steer the narrative in the direction of truth except Steve McQueen. He proved to be relentless in the face of the film giants, telling stories of Black enslavement and racism in the rawest and most personal way possible.
Here's how Steve McQueen single-handedly took on the task of revolutionizing the British and U.S. film industry by elucidating the struggles of the Black and West Indian communities.
Historic Moment in Film: 12 Years a Slave
McQueen's work did not always revolve around his West Indian and Black representation. His early works were typically short films with minimalistic and grayscale, heavily reflective of the works of American artist, Andy Warhol. His themes were often absurd, as was the case with his first film entitled Bear, released in 1993, depicted a wrestling match with two naked men, one of them being McQueen, exchanging a series of ambiguous glances. McQueen would go on to make two feature films including Hunger in 2008, which showcased the 1981 Irish hunger strike. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and there, McQueen was awarded the Caméra d'Or - the first ever British director to receive the award.
Up until this point, however, McQueen's works have been heavily compliant with the conventions of British film. His films received extraordinary reviews from film critics such as Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy but these films remained attached to McQueen's identity as a British man in the British film industry and not a black man of proud West Indian heritage.
So when did the tides truly begin to change?
It started when McQueen read Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir, entitled 12 Years a Slave, and was instantly struck by the authenticity of the publication. The voices of the enslaved were often muffled and yet, a firsthand account of mankind's gravest sin fell into McQueen's palms. There was no doubt in his mind that he had to make a film about it. He knew that in the same way it resonated with him, it would resonate with the rest of the global black community.
"It was a film I wanted to see and no one was making it, so I thought to myself, 'Well, I want to do this. I want to make this film,'" McQueen confessed on NPR's Fresh Air.
When it was time to release his chef-d'oeuvre the rampant prejudice in the film industry came to light but a headstrong McQueen didn't back down. In an interview with Insider, he unveiled the racist attitudes of Hollywood producers who refused to finance his film because 'Black films don't make money overseas.'
Director Steve McQueen jumps for joy as he and cast and crew members of “12 Years a Slave” accept the award for best picture during the Oscars. (John Shearer / Invision / Associated Press)
It’s a good thing that McQueen stood his ground and ignored these bitter words because his film 12 Years a Slave, released in 2013, made $57 million in the U.S. box office and $150 million outside of the U.S. The film in fact marked a pivotal moment in both British cinema and Hollywood because studios around the global now realized not only the potential but the power that films created by Black people possessed. It opened the door for Black screenwriters, directors, and producers such as Barry Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, and Ryan Coogler to release their own films which also became quite successful in the box office.
The success of 12 Years a Slave could be described as almost karmic since it also dominated the Academy Awards by copping three awards - Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. However, the film's victory at the Oscars was particularly historic since this was the first film from a Black director to win the industry’s highest honor.
The socio-cultural significance of 12 Years a Slave, however, cannot be overlooked. Although it was not the first movie about African enslavement in the US, it was the first movie that dispelled the sugarcoat that previous directors used to dilute the brutality of slavery. McQueen portrayed unadulterated truth. According to the New York Times, there were no lovable masters and cheerful slaves in 12 Years a Slave unlike the 1939 classic 'Gone With the Wind' and Tarantino's 'Django Unchained.' McQueen's film simply showcased the slave as a character and not a caricature.
Showcasing His Caribbean Heritage with Small Axe
McQueen's next major leap of activism was the British anthology, Small Axe, released in 2020, whose title references the proverb popularized by Bob Marley, 'If you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down /.' The award-winning filmmaker started to conceptualize this anthology even before the groundbreaking success of 12 Years a Slave. As a British citizen of Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage, McQueen wanted to understand himself and where he came from. The project morphed into a series of five films (Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education), all distinct yet all displaying the West Indian experience in London.
Small Axe Mangrove/Amazon
Although the series was dedicated to George Floyd and timely given the rise of Black Lives Matter, Small Axe remains very personal to McQueen as he taps into his experiences and the experiences of his Caribbean-migrant parents living in London between the 1960s and the 1980s. Most notable about the release of Small Axe was McQueen's adamance about having a diverse cast and crew despite the dominance of white workers in the industry. He did not hold back, saying that not only is Britain far-behind that of the US in terms of representation but he explicitly lamented in a Guardian op-ed, "The UK film industry has to change. It's wrong. It's blatant racism."
A lack of infrastructure and support made it difficult for McQueen to hire black, Asian and ethnic minority crew members but he still succeeded in having a majority-black cast for Small Axe. McQueen's conviction serves as a stepping stone to completely shattering the boundaries of race and class which, in the British film industry, go hand in hand.
The series received countless nominations and won 14 awards, including Best Supporting Actor at the British Academy Television Awards and Golden Globe Awards and Director of the Year at the London Film Critics Circle Awards. All five films also received an over 95% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the most well-received series to date.
From Battling Racism To Becoming a Celebrated Filmmaker
Growing up, McQueen, like many other children who shared his Caribbean roots, was a victim of institutional racism and microaggressions. McQueen explains to Metro magazine that in his school people were excluded and ostracized because of their race and their class. He describes his school experience as a “terrible start" since he was placed into classes where he received vocational education. Although this was meant to undermine his abilities, McQueen's education in trade helped foster his love for art.
After a few failed attempts at local colleges, McQueen started art school at the Chelsea College of Arts, an environment with less bias and discrimination. There, for the first time, he found happiness and an environment in which he could work well. After graduation, McQueen started studying Fine Arts at the prestigious Goldsmiths College in London where he first became interested in film. However, he soon left Goldsmiths to study at the New York University's Tisch School of Arts due to the unpleasant environment in film at Goldsmiths.
There is no telling whether a young Steve McQueen ever imagined that one day he would win the Turner Prize for his artwork 'Queen and Country', one of the most prestigious prizes in Britain. The artist and filmmaker also probably never imagined that he would be listed twice in the Power List Top 10 Most Influential Black Britons and that he would win too many awards to count, including his 2021 European Film Award for Innovative Storytelling and the Black Film Critics Circle Award.
Steve McQueen is unstoppable in the face of injustice. His new docuseries 'Uprising' has been gaining popularity and he has an upcoming film 'Blitz' in the making. We can only listen to our hearts pumping in anticipation for McQueen to once again obliterate British and U.S. cinemas.