Steve McQueen: ‘Calling me a political director is like calling me a male director’

Steve McQueen: “Calling me a political director is like calling me a male director. Everything is political.”
The director of Hunger and 12 Years a Slave on his new series of films called Small Axe, dealing with the West Indian experience in London over 30 years

It’s been 13 years since I first met Steve McQueen. Hunger, his devastating take on the H-Block hunger strikes, had just won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. His victory in the Turner Prize, the UK’s premier award for visual arts, was nearly a decade in the past. We enjoyed a sunny autumn day on the patio at the front of the American Hotel in Amsterdam.

“I remember that. Nice terrace,” he says.

A lot has happened in the interim. Hunger made a star of Michael Fassbender. McQueen won an Oscar as producer of 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Last year, he was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list. Small Axe, his recent series of films for the BBC, has been universally acclaimed. At next week’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, a virtual event this year, he will chew through the career with writer and actor Mark O’Halloran.

Yet you couldn’t reasonably argue that acclaim has softened his edges. He still enjoys tugging the carpet beneath interviewers and rounding on your questions from an oblique angle. We get into it early on when I ask if he has an opinion on the debate as to whether Small Axe, dealing with the West Indian experience in London over 30 years, counts as cinema.

“I don’t care! That’s for critics to talk about,” he says. “I think these kind of conversations are about the limits of people’s imagination of what can be what. If the situation is not pushed then it becomes stagnant.”

This is not an issue of ranking. Nobody (at least nobody who’s not an idiot) is rating one medium over another. But it was interesting to note how the anthology and the individual films have been treated in awards season. The LA Film Critics Circle anointed the whole series as its film of the year. Their counterparts in New York honoured Lovers Rock, the beautiful, elegiac episode concerning a reggae party in 1980, individually for its cinematography. But Small Axe has not been entered for the Oscars or the Bafta awards. Next year’s Emmys await. What goes on? The media are all blurring.

“That’s not for me to say. That’s for you. Blurring? I just make stuff. You are the guys who want to put labels on things. That limits your thoughts and your imagination. If you want to be limited by form then fine. But kids aren’t. It feels dusty. It feels like an old conversation.”

Fair enough. After all, McQueen came to the moving image via television.

“The first time I saw movies was on TV,” he says. “But when I got in to watch with an audience that was another thing. The ‘oohs’ and the ‘ahs’! It was a fantastic experience to watch a film with an audience.”

Does he remember what films won him over as a child?

“Lots of things. I saw Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter when I was 11 years old. I remember seeing a Warhol film projected at school. I remember seeing The Singing Detective, the Dennis Potter series, on TV. That was very influential.”

I could draw, and art was a liberation. Art taught me about geography. It taught me about maths. There was no career plan. It was just something I was good at

Education, the last of Small Axe’s five films, deals with the semi-official segregation of black students in London schools during the 1970s. Viewers will inevitably parse the story for clues as to McQueen’s background. He was not considered academic at school. Diagnosed with dyslexia, stuck with an eye patch due to an ocular complaint, he felt that he was written off at the age of 13. He proved them all wrong. He studied design at Chelsea College of Art and became part of a golden generation – the so-called Young British Artists – at Goldsmiths College, going on to excel in the field of video art.

Was there a teacher who inspired him?

“No, no, no. It wasn’t like that. There was just a will and a want. I could draw, and art was a liberation. Art taught me about geography. It taught me about maths. No one gave me anything. There was no career plan. It was just something I was good at.”

So there was no thought that he would go on to make films that played in cinemas, to win an Oscar and ultimately to get a knighthood (I say, facetiously).

Small Axe, featuring John Boyega as the character Leroy Logan, is an anthology film series for the BBC. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh
Small Axe, featuring John Boyega as the character Leroy Logan, is an anthology film series for the BBC. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh

“No. No. It was all about experimenting,” he says. “What happens if I do this? The fact that I am talking to you now is interesting.”

Not every video artist has made a success of the journey into features. None has been quite so triumphant as McQueen. So it is worth asking how he made the leap to Hunger. Written by Enda Walsh, the 2008 film starring Fassbender as a version of Bobby Sands, caused a sensation on its Cannes premiere. How did that come together? We were impressed that he cared about the conflict. Many in England didn’t.

“Are we having the same interview we had 13 years ago?” he says. “We are here to talk about Small Axe. Come on. You can pick up a newspaper or go look up an article to find out what I said then. Come on. I think I talked to you about that 13 or 14 years ago. No?”

If he doesn’t wish to talk about it again that’s fine.

“No, no, no. It’s not that I don’t wish to,” he says, nearly apologetic. “It’s just that I thought we were talking about Small Axe. What’s your question? It was one of those things that left an impression on me when I was growing up. I remember this image came up on TV and I asked my mother about it. It related to me as a child. The only power I had over my parents was to refrain from eating. That stuck with me.”

McQueen followed Hunger with the searing Shame, in which Fassbender played a tormented, sex-addicted New Yorker. 12 Years a Slave won Academy Awards for best picture, best screenplay and, honouring Lupita Nyong’o, best supporting actress. Small Axe feels like his most direct attempt – outside his video work – to engage with the black British experience. The opening episode, Mangrove, deals with the trial of nine people dubiously charged with inciting a riot at the Mangrove restaurant in 1970.

“People didn’t talk about these things. It was maybe to do with the post-traumatic stress disorder from what happened,” he says. “I didn’t know about the Mangrove Nine until 12 years ago. That’s interesting. I am 51 years old. I only found out about these things in middle age. People were traumatised.”

Is the media now less inclined to turn away from black stories?

“We are just at the start,” he says. “Hopefully there is more and more. I am encouraged by the normality of something like Bridgerton. Things like that can be for everybody.”

He has a hand in forwarding those changes.

“Everything is political. Calling me a political director is like calling me a male director. Everything is political. Nothing is divorced from the political. How he and she met? Where they come from? I am not uneasy about that. I am just a realist. Ha, ha!”

Making Hunger with Michael Fassbender was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had. Nobody expected anything from us. Nobody believed in us

Noting that “everything is political,” I wonder if he thought twice about accepting the knighthood. We can safely assume that no person will again combine that award with an Oscar and the Turner Prize. 

“I am British. They want to give me an award – one of the highest accolades. I’ll have it. Thank you very much,” he says, with a slight snigger.

Others have fretted about it.

“That’s their choice. Go for it.”

Our time is winding down. As I am backing towards the virtual doorway, he returns to the topic of Hunger and, apparently eager to assure me that he wasn’t being awkward earlier, adds a fascinating and touching coda.

“Thank you very much, thank you very much,” he says. “But here’s something I never forget. Doing the research on Hunger with Enda – talking to a lot of hunger strikers and survivors – and, with what we shot, the whole thing was heavy, very heavy. A month later, I got a huge rash under my arms. That was the stress. It never goes away. People were just happy to talk to me about it. It was all about the things that are between the words in the history books.”

He has more he wants to get out.

“Making that movie with Michael was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had. Nobody expected anything from us. Nobody believed in us. We just came together as an artistic family and made it happen. Everything else is based on that.”

He’s an original.

Steve McQueen will be in conversation with Mark O’Halloran on March 5th as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

VDIFF 2021

A year after the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival dodged incoming lightning – finishing mere days before the first lockdown – the event returns with a diverse online programme. You will have to lay out the red carpet in your own livingroom, but virtual galas will be held for opening film Supernova, featuring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as romantic partners coping with dementia; Playback, a programme of the best Irish hip-hop videos; closing film Deadly Cuts, a comedy about vigilante hairdressers featuring Angeline Ball; and – still there – the ever popular surprise film.

Other high-profile domestic premieres include Francis Lee’s Ammonite, featuring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as lovers in 19th century Dorset; Bryan Fogel’s The Dissident, a documentary on the murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and Adam Carter Rehmeier’s super Sundance hit Dinner in America, a road movie taking two eccentrics across the United States. We also warmly recommend Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a touching documentary following the travails of a Norwegian pig and her litter.

Top of many people’s wishlists will be Lee Isaac Chung’s elegantly played Korean-American saga Minari. Chung and Christina Oh, Minari’s producer, will be among the many filmmakers turning up for Q&A sessions throughout the festival. Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, will also engage in a wide-ranging conversation with writer and director Mark O’Halloran.

The festival has always been a launching pad for Irish cinema and this year is no exception. Local films receiving an outing include Chris Baugh’s Boys from the County Hell, a comedy set in the footsteps of Bram Stoker; Ivan Kavanagh’s Son, a possession horror starring Emile Hirsch; and To the Moon, the latest, gorgeously eccentric documentary from Tadhg O’Sullivan.

Colin Firth, a returning guest, will get a Volta award, the festival’s gong for lifetime achievement, in a more remote fashion than has hitherto been usual.

Francis Lee’s Ammonite features Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as lovers in 19th century Dorset
Francis Lee’s Ammonite features Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as lovers in 19th century Dorset

The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival runs online from March 3rd until March 14th.