The Auteurs: Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen is a filmmaker who has made quite a name for himself thanks to films that capture the darker aspects of humanity. Starting out in the world of art, his artistic background is prominent in his trio of celebrated cinematic works. Though he only has three films to his credit, McQueen has already become an important figure in both the world of film and art.
Born in London England in October 9, 1969 into a Grenadian/Trinidadian family, Steven Rodney McQueen endured a lot while growing up in his West London neighborhood. Aside from dealing with both dyslexia and a lazy eye, he also encountered racism throughout his high school years. Where he found solace though was in the realm of art. Studying art at various colleges, including Chelsea College and at Goldsmith College, it was his tenure at the University of London that fueled McQueen’s interested in the world of film further. After a brief stint at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, he returned to Britain to hone his craft as an artist.
During 1993 to 2007, McQueen spent much of his time working on art installations and making a series of short films. The short films screened in art galleries and brought a lot of visibility to McQueen thanks in part to the controversy some of them attracted. An example of this is his 2007 short Queen and Country which involved deceased soldiers from the Iraq war being used as stamps.
Those who lived in Britain during the early 1980s will not only remember the conflicts between Britain and Ireland, but also the 1981 hunger strike that IRA prisoners conducted at Maze Prison. It was an event that marked a watershed moment in history; one that served as the basis of McQueen debut film Hunger. Documenting the final days of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender in the first of several collaborations with the director), the film is a stirring drama about politics, conviction and humanity,
Featuring Liam Cunningham in a small, but key, role, McQueen’s film offered a raw look at the complex nature of the IRA’s plight and their defiance of the British government. It showed the brutally harsh conditions that the prisoners had to endure while attempting to stay true to their cause. Rather than strictly focusing on the violence and grime within the prison, McQueen ensured that the audiences never forgot that these individuals were human beings first and IRA members second. A perfect example of this comes via a 17-minute one-shot scene where Sands talks to a priest about why he is willing to see the hunger strike through to the very end.
Hunger premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival that May and won the prestigious Camera d’Or for first-time filmmakers. Despite a polarizing reaction it evoked, the film was a modest commercial success in its theatrical run in Britain and Ireland. Hunger received a limited American release and not only garnered rave reviews, but also served as an international breakthrough for both McQueen and Fassbender.
After passing on the chance to helm a biopic on musician Fela Kuti, Steve McQueen decided team up with screenwriter Abi Morgan on a film that explored the world of sex addiction. Shame revolves around a 30-something sex addict, Brandon Sullivan, whose life begins to unravel when his troubled younger sister unexpectedly visits. Having enjoyed working with Michael Fassbender on Hunger, McQueen casted him in the lead role. British actress Carey Mulligan was cast in the role of Brandon’s sister Sissy, while the likes of Nicole Behaire and James Badge Dale had supporting roles in the film.
Re-teaming with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, who worked on his previous film, Shame was shot largely in New York City. The city served as a visual manifestation of the temptation that surrounded Sullivan. McQueen used the film to create a fascinating character study of a man trying to maintain control in a world where the vices are too strong to ignore. Since the film was largely about sex, McQueen did not sugar-coat things; instead he presented the addiction in a realistic and at times unsettling fashion.
Shame made its debut the 2011 Venice Film Festival and Fassbender won the festival’s Volpi Cup for Best Actor. Though the film was a hit at the festival, it received an NC-17 rating since McQueen refused to tone down some of the content. While Shame got rave reviews, the fact that it received very little love come Oscar nomination time, especially in regards to Fassbender’s performance, came as a shock to many of the film’s supporters.
12 Years a Slave (review)
After first meeting screenwriter John Ridley back in 2008, McQueen and Ridley decided to create a film, 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s memoir. Northup’s life story was especially riveting as part of it involved him going from a free-man living in the North to being kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years in the south. The production really picked up steam once it received support from Brad Pitt, whose company Plan B Entertainment, produced the film. Pitt even agreed to take a small role in the film as a Canadian laborer who helped Northup gain his freedom.
Binging back his favorite muse Michael Fassbender to play a brutal plantation owner Edwin Epps, McQueen cast British actor Chiwitel Ejiofor in the lead role of Northup. The film’s large ensemble featured a who’s who of talented actors. The diverse group of actors included Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Adepero Oduye, Quvenzhané Wallis and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o in the role of the slave Patsy. Shot in Louisiana and New Orleans, McQueen created a portrait of a pre-Civil War American South that was steeped in realism, but had a dreamlike mixture of beauty and ugliness. Historical consultant Henry Louis Gates Jr. helped McQueen ensure that the film captured the hardships and brutality of slavery in an authentic way.
12 Years a Slave premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival before moving to the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award. Backed by rave reviews, the film was a major commercial success; it grossed $188 million worldwide gross against its $22 million budget. The film went on to win three of its nine Academy Awards nominations. Taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and a Best Supporting Actress prize for Lupita Nyong’o.
While Steve McQueen still has a biopic on Paul Robeson in the works, it was announced recently that his planned HBO series, Codes of Conduct, has been scrapped. The show was to star Devon Terrell, Paul Dano, Rebecca Hall, and Helena Bonham Carter. Despite this recent turn of events, McQueen no doubts has several other projects that he would like to get in development. In a short span of time McQueen has become one of the most thought-provoking filmmakers working today. He may only have three films under his belt, but McQueen has already proven that he is not afraid to tackle provocative stories that speak to the core of humanity.
© thevoid99 2016