Brad Pitt described Steve McQueen ‘Indomitable’, during the Oscars Ceremony. The 12 Years a Slave—the excruciating story of a man sold into slavery, co-produced by Pitt and directed by McQueen—won Best Picture award. McQueen is no doubt a film force to be reckoned with, embraced and feted by Hollywood. And it’s within Hollywood that the artist has found the platform he was looking for.
McQueen’s career is a success story. Enrolling at Goldsmiths College in 1991, was the first step in a trajectory that soon made him one of Britain’s most celebrated artists. The early short film “Bear” (1993), about two men (one of them McQueen) circling each other as if readying themselves for a fight, was the first success followed by other successful and often intrinsic, unsettling art films that quickly gained critical acclaim. Not yet 30, McQueen had a solo show at MOMA in 1997. Two years later he won the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art accolade.
But contemporary art was always a too small world for McQueen, and he went from experimental filmmaking to explore other paths. He began with his first feature film Hunger(2008), a grueling account of IRA Bobby Sands’ hunger strike.
Hunger quickly became one of the key films dealing with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, a subject that remains incredibly raw. It pushed McQueen towards very different spheres. His work started to be discussed in mainstream media in a way that was unthinkable in Britain even for high-profile events such as the Turner Prize. Hunger, and later Shame, about sex addiction, attracted viewers who might have never heard of the artist before, and who had perhaps never set foot in a contemporary art museum. However big his art career, it’s with Hunger that McQueen’s voice truly started to be heard.
It is powerful that while the artist was working on Hunger he went to Iraq and embedded in the British army in Iraq as an Official War Artist. McQueen found himself unable to shoot a film. After much reflection, he decided to produce stamps displaying the portrait of British soldiers killed during the conflict. The piece is called Queen & Country. The artist hoped Royal Mail would print the stamps and put them in circulation. The project garnered some support and a petition with 20,000 signatures, but Royal Mail didn’t get persuaded, and the campaign had to be abandoned.
By contrast, the amount of discourse 12 Years a Slave has generated is staggering. Besides its own merits as movie—superbly carried by the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o—the film has raised important questions on the depiction of slavery in Western cinema and the dearth of black filmmakers dealing with the topic at a mainstream level. It has also put a spotlight on the still-prevailing white stronghold on the movie industry—and, crucially, could well play a role in changing it.
No contemporary artwork could have had comparable impact. McQueen is well aware of this. When, in the early 2000s, his work took on a more overtly political tone, he wasn’t going to let it speak only to the museum’s white walls, and the (relatively) few who visit its rarefied atmosphere. So he has chosen cinema for his enormous subject. And he won.