Stephanie Bunbury, “12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen says: 'The past is absolutely about the present for me'”, The Sydney Herald, January 25, 2014 Steve McQueen was struggling with a script about a free man who is captured and enslaved when his wife came across the scandal of Solomon Northup. Northup was a black musician of impeccable respectability who, in 1841, was lured from his home in Boston on the promise of a job and sold into slavery in Alabama; it was exactly the story McQueen wanted to tell. His family went to Britain from Granada; his mother's side of the family can be traced back to Ghana. "This is the biggest story in British and American history, but it's not talked about," he says. "That's why it interested me." McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave recently won the Golden Globe for best drama and has been nominated for nine Oscars. It is easy to forget that McQueen had a career as a visual artist, winning the 1999 Turner Prize - Britain's top art award - for a film of a street shot from the side of a rolling barrel, before he started making the kinds of films you can see in movie theatres. In 2006 he served as a war artist in Iraq, which resulted in a much-discussed piece called Queen and Country where the faces of Britain's dead servicemen and women were recorded on postage stamps; in 2009 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. "It's no different," McQueen says. "Making a film is like writing a novel - you're telling a story - whereas art is more like poetry: fractured and compressed. It's a bigger process and of course, with film, more people are involved and it may take 10 months to make rather than the moment it takes to make a brushstroke. But when I think about it, it feels the same." Twelve Years a Slave is McQueen's most conventionally dramatic film, but his artist's eye is always in evidence: those festoons of Spanish moss in the Louisiana plantations are shot in such a way that we can almost smell the swamp, while a squalid slaves' bunkroom will momentarily acquire the textural darkness of a Rembrandt. Most of all, he isn't afraid of time. Galleries, after all, are about stopping, looking and thinking. McQueen does not hesitate to push key scenes well beyond the supposed endurance of the movie theatre audience. In his first feature Hunger, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in Belfast's Maze prison, he constructed the story around a static 17-minute shot of Sands and his priest sitting at a table, arguing. In Shame, his harsh sophomore film about a sex addict set in the glass-and-steel world of Manhattan's financial quarter, he favoured long, travelling shots through bars and sex clubs, and along jogging tracks in Central Park. "Why cut? If you have a close-up and what you're getting is incredible, stay with it, look at it," McQueen told the The Guardian. "It's about what actually works. The fact is, it's exciting. There's film time, and there's real time. These happened in real time and that's exciting. You're putting an audience in a situation that feels like reality." His visceral concerns as an artist - violence, endurance and the tension between the two, usually played out on the male body - have also stuck with him. The first piece of video art he made after he left Goldsmiths University, Bear, was a 10-minute loop showing two naked, burly men, one of whom was McQueen himself, circling each other, that could equally suggest sexual flirtation or that a fight was imminent; it was the ambiguity that interested him. Just after he won the Turner Prize, a critic who had watched all his films asked him if he saw himself as a black artist. "I would say no," McQueen said. "But if you watch Bear, you see two black men wrestling. If I watch it, I see two men wrestling. If I spit on the floor here, it is black spit. I can't escape from that, but I don't force it." Arguably, however, his most important creative partner is white. Irish actor Michael Fassbender played Bobby Sands in Hunger, starving himself down to Sands' dying weight; that physical commitment, he said later, was not nearly as hard as the mental torture of playing sex addict Brandon in Shame, for which McQueen demanded he strip himself to the emotional bone. "We work so well together that it's not even working," McQueen says. "We don't question it, but we influence each other, we bring out the best in each other. When I met him for the first time, I thought he was too cocky. You just never know; it's like falling in love." In Twelve Years a Slave, Fassbender plays the vile plantation owner Edwin Epps, whose cruelty to his slaves spins into psychopathy where his most able cotton-picker, a young woman called Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), is concerned. Epps is obsessed with her; his abuses and occasional indulgences grotesquely mimic the form of an affair, albeit an affair where, at any moment, he can whip his beloved to death. "A lot of people want to make Epps out to be evil," McQueen says, "but the reality is he is in love with Patsey and he can't understand it, so he takes to drink and tries to destroy her. I have no real sympathy for Epps, but you have to understand what's going on: he's desperate." While Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the suffering Northup with heroic decency, it is the misery and monstrousness of Edwin Epps that is perhaps the film's real subject. McQueen was born in 1969. He grew up in London's suburbia, the son of a transport worker and a nurse; his father kept telling him to get a trade and, even after he was successful, "was still taking the piss, saying to my friend 'do you understand what Steve does?'" At school, he remembers teachers telling him he would never amount to anything. But he had a ticket out: he could draw. He got into Chelsea art school, which he loved, on the strength of his folio, then into Goldsmiths, the epicentre of the Young British Artist explosion that threw up Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and other famous names. That was rather less comfortable. By the time he hit the Tisch school of New York University, where he thought he would be able to combine his artistic explorations with something like the trade his father wanted, all his spikes were out: the place was just "rich kids with no talent" and he left after three months. Even now, McQueen is remarkably chippy; you have the impression he sees journalists as if we were leftover grammar school kids who had crossed the playground to pick on him. He doesn't get that. ''When you're passionate about something, it can be sort of misunderstood," he told Esquire magazine recently. "But I like to have a debate; I like arguing, not because I'm disagreeing with someone, but because they might be right and I'll learn something. I'm communicational, not confrontational." His diplomatic skills have no doubt been given a heavy work-out over the past few months which, in the weird world that is Hollywood, is the part of the year given over to jockeying for awards nominations. "I had no idea when I started that you could be on the road with a movie for 18 months," he wrote when Hunger was first released. Twelve Years a Slave has been a much more exhausting commitment; McQueen lives with his partner and their two children in Amsterdam specifically because it isn't on the way to anywhere, nobody bothers him and "because it isn't London, it's not LA, it's not New York'' - but speaks to me on the phone from Los Angeles. Of course the recognition is thrilling; McQueen said he was "exhilarated and ecstatic" about those nine Oscar nominations. But big films - and Twelve Years a Slave, for all that it cost barely £10 million ($19 million) and was shot with one camera in 35 days, is a big film - also get picked apart in a big way. For a start, there is the film's brutality. The unwavering stare of McQueen's long takes levelled upon beatings and lynchings has proved too much for some audiences. But how could a film about slavery be anything but painfully violent? McQueen says he simply followed Northup's book. "Reading it was like revelation after revelation," he says. "Everything is from the memoir; nothing is taken for granted and every behaviour is documented." That's another objection: that Twelve Years a Slave catalogues and condemns the sins of a past era, rather than addressing the muddier and more conflicted sins of the present. McQueen dismisses this with his customary abruptness. "The point is that it is happening now," he says. "I listened to a lady in Kenya who had been in the same circumstances: seduced by a work offer in Dubai, she went there, had her passport taken, was subjected to this terrible ordeal, locked up at night; she escaped in Los Angeles. The past is absolutely about the present for me." Beside which, he says, the legacy of slavery is everywhere: in the schools where African-American children fail, in prisons, in hospitals dealing with mental health and addiction. Wherever he has presented Twelve Years a Slave, he says, the ensuing discussion has resembled a town-hall meeting; on one occasion in Los Angeles, when a teenage girl stood up to say she was Solomon Northup's great-great-great granddaughter, "the place just erupted". As that great Southern writer William Faulkner once wrote: "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." McQueen would go with that. "It's like an avalanche," he says. "People are finally having that conversation; it's allowing people to have their story told."
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