Published on February 24, 2014 | by Ben Grazebrook


From Chelsea College of Arts to Hollywood movies

ALN’s Ben Grazebrook profiles British film director Steve McQueen and explores his troubled past as 12 Years a Slave brings a shameful chapter of American history to the big screen.

Steve McQueen on the red carpet at the Baftas

McQueen has never set out to please the mainstream audience with his films. [Flickr: Chris Cheung]

Steve McQueen has successfully made the difficult transition from directing small-scale indie films to Hollywood. His latest film, 12 Years a Slave, has been nominated for nine Oscars. But despite the success of his films, McQueen is still troubled by his past and the struggles he faced growing up in 1980s west London.

McQueen, a UAL alumnus, began his artistic career at the Chelsea College where he did a Foundation degree in painting. He credits his time there as a period of creative freedom and says that it marked a point in his life when “for the first time he was really happy”.

In 1999, McQueen won the Turner prize for his piece Deadpan, a black-and-white silent film. His other contributions to the show were a photo of a partly submerged bicycle wheel and the film Prey, in which a tape recorder attached to a balloon disappears into the sky.

As the son of West Indian parents, slavery is in McQueen’s genes. Growing up, he had to fight off the stereotypes placed of him. “When did you ever see a black man doing what I wanted to do?” he asked in a recent interview with The Guardian.

Issues of slavery

Even McQueen’s father was of the opinion that he should get a job as a tradesman instead of pursuing a career in the arts. It is these issues of slavery and injustice that McQueen draws on in 12 Years a Slave, which tells the story of Solomon Northup, a black New York businessman who was drugged by traffickers and sold into slavery in 1841. Upon his escape 12 years later, he published a memoir of his horrendous experiences.

Looking back at his childhood, it is amazing how many of the themes McQueen approaches in his films are the very same ones he dealt with while growing up. By the age of 13, his school was divided into classes of ability; 3C1 class was “for, like, OK, normal kids”, he told The Guardian.

Then there was 3C2, “for manual labour, more plumbers and builders, stuff like that.” McQueen was put into 3C2, “maybe I deserved to be,” he said. “That inequality – I loathe it with a passion. It’s all bullshit, man. It really upsets me.”

Having returned to the school 15 years later, the new headmaster admitted to McQueen that the school had indeed been institutionally racist. McQueen was not surprised: “It was horrible. It was disgusting, the system, it was absolutely disgusting. It was hurtful. It was awful.”


The discrimination that McQueen experienced in his childhood clearly deeply affected him, so much so that it is only now that he admits he was dyslexic. “I was so ashamed. I thought it meant I was stupid. Also, I had a lazy eye. So I had a patch. When you’re in front of the chalk board, you still can’t see.”

Shot of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor won the best actor award at the Baftas [Fox Searchlight]

McQueen’s reluctance to revisit his past is one of the symmetries between himself and his films. When you watch a McQueen film you see how people react in extreme situations, but McQueen never attempts to explore why they act in such ways.

Maybe McQueen never understood how much his childhood affected his view of the world. Instead of looking inwards at a past that haunts him, he now uses his films to expose the injustice he experienced. As a result, his life is incredibly singular; his life is his work.

He lives in Amsterdam with his partner and two children. “No one comes here, so I’m never bothered.” It is this insular personality that results in McQueen coming under fire from critics; he is a famously hard interviewee and can come across as abrasive; one critic referred to him as a “dick”.

Pleasing the mainstream has never been the primary goal for McQueen, if it was ever a goal at all. The more controversial topics he chooses, the more popular his films.


His debut in the world of feature films, Hunger (2008), was a gruesome look at the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands starving himself to death inside the Maze prison. It won McQueen a BAFTA.

His next film, Shame (2011), was an unblinking look at the life of a sex addict; it took £10 million at the box office. 12 Years a Slave has already taken more than double that and could potentially make McQueen the first black feature film director to win an Academy Award.

“The film has given people a platform. It’s been amazing. The film has evoked a conversation about that time in history that I don’t think has happened for a long, long time. It’s been incredible” Steve McQueen

Undoubtedly one of the reasons McQueen’s films have been met with such admiration is because of the unflinching way in which they portray their subject matter. This is evident in 12 Years where McQueen graphically depicts the beatings, lynchings and rapes suffered by slaves.

“I didn’t realise slavery was that bad,” said McQueen. “There’s been a kind of amnesia, or not wanting to focus on this, because of it being so painful. It’s kind of crazy. We can deal with the Second World War and the Holocaust, but this side of history, maybe because it was so hideous, people just do not want to see, they do not want to engage.”

Despite this ‘amnesia’, the response to 12 Years has been startling. Audiences have been willing to engage with it and as a result the film is becoming so much more than a film; rather an exposé of one of the most shameful chapters of American history.

“It’s almost like the film has given people a platform. It’s been amazing. The film has evoked a conversation about that time in history that I don’t think has happened for a long, long time. It’s been incredible,” said McQueen.


12 Years a Slave picked up the coveted trophy for Best Film at the 2014 BAFTA awards, and McQueen thanked his “one and only mother for having the faith – never give up.”

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor also won the best actor award for his starring role as Northup. McQueen added that, “right now there are 21 million people in slavery. I just hope that 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another film maker to make this film.”

Art house and mainstream movies are often considered polar opposites in the cinematic world, but McQueen quashes this idea with the success of his first three feature films.

He is not successful because of his troubled upbringing or his fight to be ‘heard’ as an artist. He is successful because he is a truly remarkable film-maker.


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