Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave confirmed Steve McQueen’s place in film-making history. But it is his lesser-known career in art that makes him such a compelling storyteller
by Michela Sechi
Clasping his Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Steve McQueen thanks everyone: his crew, cast and the most important women in his life. Dedicating his award for 12 Years a Slave to those who still suffer slavery, he declares that “everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live”
Experimental film-maker and singular exponent of the British avant-garde, the 1999 Turner Prize winner has earned a reputation as one of the United Kingdom’s most brilliant talents. “Not just an artist who became a film director”, he is “one of the best artists of his generation”, says Gregor Muir, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London.
Although he has lived in Amsterdam for the past 16 years with his Dutch wife, cultural critic Bianca Stigter, McQueen was born in West London, to Grenadian parents. He had a working class upbringing in Ealing, attending Drayton Manor High School, where football soon became his great love.
Remembering his high school days in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the 44-year-old director spoke openly about his ‘hidden shame’: his dyslexia. As a dyslexic child, who also wore an eye-patch to correct a lazy eye, he was quickly dismissed as a hopeless case.
Rather than receiving special attention or encouragement at school, he was placed in a remedial class for students considered best suited for manual labour. His dyslexia went unrecognised and, consequently, unaccommodated.
Experiencing this inequality at such a tender age has obviously left its mark on McQueen. Describing school as a painful and awful experience, the father of two recalled:
“School was scary for me because no one cared, and I wasn’t good at it because no one cared. At 13 years old, you are marked, you are dead, that’s your future.”
It seems to be the wasted talent of his schoolmates, who did not achieve what they might have because no one believed in them, that upsets the director the most.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the end of the road for McQueen. Redeemed by his gift for drawing, he attended art and design courses at Chelsea College of Art before training at Goldsmiths, where his interest in film began to emerge. For the first time he was happy, because he had an environment he could work in.
McQueen’s first significant pieces of work were silent, minimalistic, black-and-white short films, in which he frequently starred. Focussing on sexuality, discrimination, vulnerability and strength, fragility and persistence, McQueen’s continued intellectual and technical development was soon to attract the attention of the public and critics.
In 1999 the artist won the prestigious Turner Prize, having been shortlisted for an exhibition at the ICA which included Deadpan (1997), a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt, and Drumroll (1998), filmed by cameras attached to an oil drum which he rolled through the streets of Manhatten. In awarding him the prize, the enthusiastic jury admired “the poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and economy of means”.
McQueen received an OBE for services to the visual arts in 2002, and was named the ‘official war artist’ for Iraq by London’s Imperial War Museum in 2003, traveling to the country for six days in 2006.
His film Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers, won him the esteemed Camera d’Or trophy at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and in 2009 he also represented Britain at the seminal Venice Biennale art fair. He was awarded a CBE in 2011.
In an interview for DP/30, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, by McQueen’s side throughout the filming of Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, describes the magic that happens during the making of these movies. The British director, he says, has the power to capture the essence beneath the surface of the things. Telling the truth by visualising it is what matters to McQueen.
His films are true visual experiences involving the audience, who are left challenged and inspired to reflect upon themselves and the world in which they live.
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