Document 66699

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
"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."