News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Fri. Oct. 25, 2013: Director Steve McQueen is trending high these days, as his master piece, ‘12 Years A Slave,’ soars with top reviews. But his connection to slavery is definitely nothing new and it shows in his eye for striking compositions and an unflinching gaze at scenes of stunning cruelty.
As he tells it: “My trajectory, as such, of being introduced to slavery was fairly immediate because my parents were from the West Indies. And, you know, at school there was reference to slavery but not much. So it’s one of those things which I found out through my parents and obviously traveling back to the West Indies.”
The movie, filmed in Louisiana and produced by Brad Pitt among others and starring British-born, Chiwetelu Umeadi “Chiwetel” Ejiofor, is a fictionalized adaptation of the 1853 autobiography ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.
He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release. Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup and the film was given a limited release in the United States on October 18, 2013, with a nationwide release scheduled for November 1, 2013, 10 minute whipping scene and all.
“It is about keeping the tension,” McQueen says of the 10 minute whipping scene. “I love the idea of just being in real time, being present, being there. That was the key for me in the way that I wanted the audience to be there. And if you put a cut in there, it would be ‘film time.’ It would have taken the air out of the pressure cooker.”
McQueen was born in West London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents. But film was not always on his radar.
He was a keen footballer, turning out for the St. Georges Colts football team. He did an A level art at Hammersmith and West London College, then studied art and design at Chelsea College of Art and Design and then fine art at Goldsmiths College.
That’s where he first became interested in film. He left Goldsmiths in 1993 and studied briefly at New York University’s Tisch School in the United States but he said he found the approach there too stifling and not experimental enough for him complaining that “they wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air.”
And throw the camera up in the air he did. His first major work was Bear (1993), in which two naked men (one of them McQueen) exchange a series of glances which might be taken to be flirtatious or threatening.
Deadpan (1997), is a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around McQueen who is left unscathed because he is standing where there is a missing window.
As well as being in black and white, both these films are silent. The first of McQueen’s films to use sound was also the first to use multiple images: Drumroll (1998). This was made with three cameras, two mounted to the sides, and one to the front of an oil drum which McQueen rolled through the streets of Manhattan. The resulting films are projected on three walls of an enclosed space. McQueen has also made sculptures such as White Elephant (1998) and photographs.
He won the Turner Prize in 1999, although much of the publicity went to Tracey Emin, who was also a nominee.
In 2006, he went to Iraq as an official war artist. The following year he presented Queen and Country, a piece which commemorated the deaths of British soldiers who died in the Iraq War by presenting their portraits as a sheet of stamps.
His 2007 short film Gravesend depicted the process of Coltan refinement and production. It premiered at The Renaissance Society in the United States.
His 2008 feature film Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. McQueen received the Caméra d’Or (first-time director) Award at Cannes, the first British director to win the award.
The film was also awarded the inaugural Sydney Film Festival Prize, for “its controlled clarity of vision, its extraordinary detail and bravery, the dedication of its cast and the power and resonance of its humanity.”
The film also won the 2008 Diesel Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The award is voted on by the press attending the festival. Hunger also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for a New Generation film in 2008 and the best film prize at the London Evening Standard Film Awards in 2009.
McQueen’s second major theatrical release, Shame, is set in New York City. It stars Michael Fassbender as a sex addict whose life is turned upside down suddenly when his estranged sister (Carey Mulligan) comes back one day and depicts his struggle to deal with it.
He is a winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a Turner Prize and a BAFTA.
Already an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to the visual arts.
Since 1997 McQueen has made his home in Amsterdam, with his longtime partner, cultural critic Bianca Stigter, and their daughter Alex and son Dexter.