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The Liberation of Steve McQueen

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

March 3, 2014 11:45 AM ET
Steve McQueen 12 years a slave
Steve McQueen
Sam Jones

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."

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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."

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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."

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