The Liberation of Steve McQueen

The Oscar-nominated director of '12 Years a Slave' is ready to put his anger aside

Steve McQueen 12 years a slave
Sam Jones
Steve McQueen
By |

A decade and a half ago, the British filmmaker Steve McQueen took a plane to Grenada, the tiny West Indian island, to visit a beautiful place where something horrible once happened. The place was Caribs' Leap, a tall cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and it had long haunted his imagination. McQueen's father, born in Grenada, and his mother, who moved there from neighboring Trinidad, told him in his youth about how, in 1651, some 40-odd members of the island's dwindling indigenous population, the Caribs, were cornered by armed French colonists. Backed up against the cliff, they faced a bleak dilemma – be killed or be captured – and chose a third option. "They threw themselves into the sea," McQueen says today. "It's one of those things that was always etched in my mind." The result of McQueen's pilgrimage was a somber gallery installation called "Caribs' Leap," in which he set images of contemporary island life on one screen and footage of bodies in a slow-motion freefall on another. The Caribs' mass suicide – its sense of principled self-obliteration in the face of a conquering force – still stuns him. "They transformed themselves," McQueen says. "They transcended themselves."

Check out our complete Oscars 2014 coverage

McQueen is an artist preoccupied by history – particularly those parts that get "swept under the rug," as he puts it. It's a warm afternoon in the middle of January, and McQueen is a long way from Grenada, installed opposite a slab of grilled chicken breast on the sun-dappled patio of a West Hollywood hotel. He's here because of another film he made about horrible events unfolding in beautiful places: 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in a lush Louisiana cotton and cane plantation. McQueen, 44, lives in Amsterdam with his wife and their two children, but he's been seeing a lot of Los Angeles recently. Five days ago, 12 Years a Slave, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. To McQueen, the victory felt especially dramatic because the rest of the evening had been so deflating. "We kept on losing out on all these awards," he says. "We thought, 'Well, you know, we'll console ourselves with alcohol.' Then, at the last minute, at the lowest ebb, it turned on a sixpence. It was amazing."

Yesterday, more good news: The movie received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture, for which it's the favorite. (If it wins in the category, it will be the first film with a black director to do so; as it stands, it's only the second such film ever to be nominated.) The toughest look that Hollywood has yet taken at America's ugliest chapter, 12 Years bears an aura of historical significance. It carries forward McQueen's interest in ghosts of the past, palpable from "Caribs' Leap" to Hunger, the acclaimed 2008 feature film that he made about the imprisoned Irish republican Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, in his breakout role), who died in 1981 while leading a hunger strike. The film marked McQueen's transition from blue-chip gallery artist into feted indie filmmaker, won a new-director's prize at Cannes and got the attention of show-business power brokers, including Brad Pitt. With 12 Years a Slave, which Pitt's production company helped to make, McQueen has migrated, improbably, from the art world to the Hollywood A list. He has generated the most bracingly severe body of work in contemporary cinema, but studios now send him scripts for big-budget "action-adventure kinds of things, with 3D elements," he says, cracking a wry smile. "That's not for me."

McQueen slices himself a piece of meat. In a nod to his working-class background – his father was a bricklayer, his mother worked at a maternity hospital – he often wears a blue twill tradesman's jacket, but today he's dressed in a light-blue button-down tucked into navy slacks, with a pair of sleek Adidas sneaker-shoe hybrids. McQueen's a big man, and his booming gargle of a voice makes him seem bigger still, but there's a transfixing softness to his features. As a teenager in London, he was spotted by a modeling scout while manning a food stall in Camden Market. "I didn't make any money from it, but it was cool," he says. He posed in fashion magazines like The Face and i-D, but was more interested in "television and books," he says. "I was boring. I was old already, even when I was 19."

Oscars 2014's 25 best and worst moments

Hollywood glitz holds little power over him. The awards season, packed with guild luncheons, studio cocktail hours and assorted promotional appearances, makes filmmakers into campaigners – a role that McQueen has accepted, but warily. "Lobbying's not my cup of tea," he says. "But a friend of mine put it this way: The movie's more important than you."

Watching a McQueen film can be harrowing. He doesn't set about staging facile triumphs of the human spirit, as the movie-poster cliché goes, so much as the human spirit's attrition and annihilation. We witness long, static takes of bodies in various states of festering abjection; we see Fassbender, McQueen's muse, as an emaciated corpse in Hunger, a dead-eyed sex addict in 2011's Shame and, in 12 Years a Slave, a drunken, whip-wielding rapist. McQueen isn't didactic, but what has long driven his art, he says, is roiling moral purpose. "Just being able to correct certain wrongs, to give a platform to Bobby Sands, to Solomon Northup? It's fantastic," he says. "I can't stand injustice. I can't stand it." When McQueen is done with a project, he says, he experiences symptoms that seem almost post-traumatic. "When I finished Hunger, I got two huge rashes underneath my arm," he recalls. "You're blinkered, so focused on making a movie about this horrible thing. Then you stop, and the shit comes to you."

McQueen's earliest taste of injustice came in elementary school, in the London suburb of Ealing. He wore a patch over one eye, to correct its lazy drift, and he was dyslexic. Rather than receiving special attention or encouragement from the school, though, McQueen was "dumped," he says, into a group of children effectively written off as hopeless cases. "It was black and white working-class people, shoved to one side," he says. "They didn't care about us. There was a class called 3X, and they were the kids who were going to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Then there was 3C1, which was for kids who were 'normal,' as such. I was put in 3C2: manual labor."

His grades were abysmal, but he had a gift for drawing. "My pictures were always about movement," McQueen says. "Cars, dashes in the middle of the street, birds." He attended art school for painting; he adored Robert Rauschenberg, who famously affixed chairs and taxidermied animals to his canvases. While enrolled at Goldsmiths University, McQueen borrowed a Super 8 camera from the school, and painting took a back seat. His signature tendency toward long takes and striking tableaux can be traced to this period. McQueen would walk London with the camera, peering through its viewfinder but shooting only sparingly, because he could barely afford film. The restriction helped him hone a style – "I was editing stuff in my head" – and it taught him economy. "Some directors go in with a machine gun, shoot, like, 40 hours," he says. "I'm not wasting my fucking time. This is not random art. It's about being in tune with the scene and finding it."

After an abortive three-month stint at NYU's film school, McQueen returned to Britain and began making art films as visually striking as they were heady. "Theory was the only thing I used to read," he recalls. "Narrative storytelling, novels – those were, for me, a bit of a bore." His early films, often wordless and black-and-white, engaged audiences via confrontation and ambiguity. In one of them, Bear, McQueen squared off against another actor in a naked wrestling match – a charged encounter by turns erotic and aggressive. In another film, McQueen pissed all over the camera lens. As he went on, though, real-world stories impinged increasingly on his work, and he began to flirt with experimental kinds of documentary, as in "Caribs' Leap" and the haunting "Western Deep," an impressionistic descent into the planet's deepest gold mine, two miles beneath South Africa, where laborers navigate a nightmarish warren of tunnels. McQueen's approach to such material was intuitive. "We got down there, and I asked Steve, 'What now?'" recalls Sean Bobbitt, who has been McQueen's cinematographer for more than a decade. "He said, 'I don't know. But there's something here, and we need to find it.'"

In 1999, McQueen won the U.K.'s most prestigious arts award, the Turner Prize, which salutes an artist's body of work. The Turner win led to the funding by Britain's Channel 4 of Hunger, in which McQueen continued to confound simplistic notions of what themes and topics a black filmmaker should tackle. Hunger features long stretches of silence and a brutally austere atmosphere, but McQueen, who remembers being deeply affected by Bobby Sands' saga as a child, had grown more interested in narrative. "There was no other way to tell the story," he says.

McQueen's unconventional style sometimes throws his collaborators. While shooting Shame, he decided to frame a fraught conversation between Fassbender and Carey Mulligan entirely from behind. "Carey didn't understand the decision," he recalls, "because it played against what she was used to doing. I said, 'Darling, don't worry about your face. You do your job, let me do mine.'"

Besides Julian Schnabel, no other fine artist has managed to transform into a feature filmmaker of McQueen's stature. "There was an immensely steep learning curve, but he climbed it," says Bobbitt. "He's very quick at reading situations, reading people. I don't think 'daunting' is in Steve's language."

A limousine driver is parked outside the hotel, waiting to take us to a charmingly dusty store called Larry Edmunds Bookshop: a trove of used biographies of auteurs and actors, critical tomes and vintage movie posters. McQueen is eager to check it out. As we roll east, he talks about the origins of 12 Years a Slave. "I needed to see those images, and I hadn't," he says. "You know: a whip. A lash on someone's back. And the psychological effects of that. As a filmmaker, those things haven't been dealt with." He also wanted his protagonist to start out the film as a free man, because "the story of the African, as far as Roots, had been told. The fact that this was a free American was important, because we needed this idea: It could be you." When his wife, a cultural critic and historian, introduced him to Northup's 1853 memoir, McQueen realized he'd found his movie.

12 Years a Slave arrived in theaters as one of several recent acclaimed movies about race in America: The Butler, Fruitvale Station and, most spectacularly, Django Unchained. Some black filmmakers, most prominently Spike Lee, have blasted Quentin Tarantino's movie, but McQueen is more circumspect. "I didn't study Django that hard. The thing I like about Tarantino is that there are people of color in his movies; he deals with the reality of his surroundings, when most American filmmakers do not. Any film that he does is an experiment, and often these experiments are really enjoyable to watch." He adds, "I loved the Samuel L. Jackson character" – a slave aligned with his white master. "I'd never seen that onscreen before."

McQueen is often asked about how being non-American shaped his take on American history. He bristles at this, because, to him, slavery eradicated those kinds of geographical distinctions. "I'm part of the slave diaspora," he says. "The only thing between us and African-Americans is my boat went one way and theirs went another."

McQueen's collaborators say that his seriousness shouldn't be confused with sternness. "He can be very charismatic and hilarious," says Ejiofor. "It's something he accessed on set, in times of stress, really well. He'd have a couple of well-placed gags and have everyone cracking up." When McQueen's at home in Amsterdam, he likes to chase his five-year-old son around the neighborhood park, and see movies with his daughter, who's 15. "We go to Hunger Games, all that stuff," McQueen says. "I enjoy those movies very much. They're really well-made." He has befriended Kanye West, who attended a retrospective of McQueen's work at 2013's Art Basel and who incorporated a photo that McQueen and Bobbitt took of a Louisiana lynching tree in his last MTV Video Music Awards performance. "We talk about shit on the phone," McQueen says. "Kanye's a thinker. He's interested, and he listens, whereas often people just talk."

At the bookstore, McQueen heads to a bookshelf marked "B" and pulls down a Marlon Brando biography. "Michael Fassbender's a bit like Brando," says McQueen. "He has a certain fearlessness, but he's also very tender. There's a feminine quality to him, almost."

No matter what happens on Oscar night, the doors of Hollywood have been thrown open, it seems, for McQueen to chase whatever project he fancies. "I want to make a musical next," he says. "I'm not kidding. It'd be difficult – that's why I like it. How do you do a contemporary musical? Also, having made Hunger and Shame and 12 Years a Slave, I don't want to put myself through that kind of pain again. Those films feel like a trilogy. I was angry. I was fucking angry. And now I'm happy: I did it, and all the anger came out in the end."

He checks his watch; he's due to tape an interview with Arsenio Hall. "I've got to come back here," he says. On the way out, a tattooed, fortysomething employee stops McQueen and presents him with a DVD screener of 12 Years a Slave.

"Uh, you're Steve McQueen, right?" the clerk asks nervously.

"I am," McQueen says. "Shall I sign it for you?" He starts to give his autograph. "When I come back, I get a discount." The guy doesn't respond, so McQueen says it again.

"I'll help you out!" the clerk says.

McQueen grins, stepping back on to the sidewalk. "My mother always told me: If you don't ask for what you want, you'll never get it."

This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1202: February 13, 2014
x