In Praise of Steve McQueen! What’s next for the Oscar Winner?
There has always been something different about Steve McQueen. Perhaps it’s because the British director is the first black man to direct and produce a film that’s won an academy award for best motion picture. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he’s one of that rare group of artists who have transitioned successfully to film. No, more likely, McQueen is differentiated by his confidence. A confidence that means he does not compromise, or flinch, in his depiction of the depths and darkness of humanity in his films and through his art.
In Shame, we see how a man copes with his sex addiction. Three years earlier, in Hunger, we watched IRA prisoners smear excrement on the wall whilst carrying out a hunger strike. Most recently, in 12 Years a Slave, we watched a free black man endure the brutalities of slavery.
This week, McQueen announced that he would be working with Harry Belafonte to bring the story of American Civil Rights activist, Paul Robeson, to the big screen. You’ll most likely remember Robeson as the singer of “Ol’ Man River” in the 1951 musical Show Boat, but the man had a much more diverse career, one that extended beyond acting and singing to political activism. As with Bobby Sands, Brandon and Solomon Northrup, Robeson is not your typical hero. In an industry where, so far, we have seen biopics on black pioneers like Jackie Robinson, James Brown and next year, Martin Luther King Jr. Robeson seems like an odd choice. But McQueen has always differentiated himself by his choice of protagonists.
In 12 Years a Slave we watch Solomon Northrup, a free black man, who is not only forced into slavery, but forced to confront his identity as a black man. Throughout the film, Northrup demonstrates a determination not to accept his new condition. And only towards the end of the film does he assimilate.
In that scene, Northrup stands at the grave of a slave, surrounded by a group of slaves singing the call and response song “Roll Jordan Roll”. Northrup stands amongst the others quietly, before relenting and joining in on the response. After scenes and scenes of Northrup’s explicit refusal to accept his fate, we now watch him as he accepts his condition as a slave and the slaves as his equals.
But, what could be a scene of submission instead becomes a scene of rebellion, now quietly spoken in the words of the spiritual.
As with protagonists of McQueen’s previous films, Northrup was not the archetypal heroic slave, relentlessly determined, openly resistant to oppression, based on the Greco-Roman mythical heroes, rather Northrup was a human, whose spirit and determination had ebbed. When freedom eventually comes for Northrup, it does not come with bangs and explosions or a cacophony of exclaim, rather, freedom comes quietly and unexpectedly.
Despite the Robeson announcement, McQueen’s immediate focus will be on adapting 1980s British miniseries, Widows, into a feature film and directing a new show for HBO, Codes of Conduct. Widows, follows the wives of three armed robbers who are killed during a robbery. Together, the wives decide to finish off the robbery, using the plans already prepared by their late husbands. Codes of Conduct, will focus on a young black man, who enters New York high society, with a past that is not all it seems.
Again, these characters are not typically heroic. They are instead accessible beings, flawed and morally ambiguous but with familiar human instincts and goals. And it is this, sometimes brutal, familiarity that differentiates McQueen.
– Hannah Campbell