The cinematic landscape nearing the end of 2021 is a complicated one, still recovering from the bruises of the Covid-19 crisis whilst navigating the newfound problem of simultaneous releases in both cinemas and on streaming platforms. Throw in the socially pertinent issues of climate change, women’s rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and suddenly cinema is responsible for reflecting the zeitgeist of a fast-moving society.
Step in artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, who since the release of Hunger in 2008 has led cinema’s drive for social change, making it a medium not for vapid entertainment but for cultural revolution. Born in London to migrant parents, a Grenadian mother and a Trinidadian father, McQueen suffered from institutional racism early, finding school particularly tricky as a result.
Studying briefly at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts later in life, he left due to the stifling approach to filmmaking that the college took, noting “they wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air” in an interview with the BBC. Despite this, McQueen pursued a career in the arts, inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol, Sergei Eisenstein, Buster Keaton and Robert Bresson, creating minimalist monochrome installations that were projected in art galleries.
It was his time as a practical artist that would support the trajectory of McQueen later in life, creating his first major work, Bear, in 1993 that he followed with eight other short films before his Turner Prize achievement in 1999.
Venturing to Iraq as an official war artist in 2006, Steve McQueen was now well-recognised in the public eye, with a valiant attitude toward addressing pertinent issues. Such materialised with his very first feature film, Hunger, in 2008, depicting the incarceration of the real-life Irish republican Bobby Sands, who leads inmates in a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike.
A compelling and powerful film led by a captivating performance from Michael Fassbender, Hunger would merely indicate the start of Steve McQueen’s extraordinary filmmaking career.
Following another string of successful short films, Shame, McQueen’s second film, was released in 2011 and followed a sex addict’s private life that falls apart when his younger sister moves in. A brutal and moving watch that digs deep into the fragility of the human psyche, Shame was later followed by the Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative memoir, 12 Years a Slave, that catapulted the director to widespread acclaim.
Though 12 Years a Slave remains his most famous film, his work on the anthology series Small Axe would establish him as a powerful leader of contemporary filmmaking. A personal project for the director, Small Axe, portrays the community that Steve McQueen grew up in, depicting stories he felt should have been made “35 years ago, 25 years ago, but they weren’t”.
As Steve McQueen reported to Sight and Sound, “There’s no way anyone would have given me – or anybody else – any money at that time to make a film about the Mangrove Nine. You were not welcome… A lot of people said to me: ‘Why did you not do this at the beginning of your film career?’ But I couldn’t have because I didn’t have the maturity then, I didn’t have the distance, I didn’t have the strength. I needed to do other things before I could come back to me”.
Showered with praise, the anthology series received numerous awards, and Small Axe became a major cultural waypoint in representing black stories on screen. Whilst filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay continue to fight for such representation in cinema; Steve McQueen may just be leading the pack.