If neither indie movies nor celebrity penises are on your radar, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Steve McQueen. And not the King of Cool who starred in many of the best ’60s Westerns; I’m talking about the British director who, after three feature films, including the lauded 12 Years a Slave, has established himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
A dual citizen of Britain and the Netherlands, McQueen became interested in film while attending the fine arts school at the University of London. He spent some time at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before deciding that he needed more room for experimentation than the university was willing to allow. He spent fourteen years making experimental short films to display in art galleries, playing with eroticism, race, and intense sensory experiences.
His feature films have continued to explore these themes, writing social, political, and emotional struggles on the canvas of the human body. In Hunger, he tells the true story of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who led and died in a famous hunger strike during the Troubles. Shame follows a sex addict’s emotional disintegration as he attempts to negotiate his disease and the return of his troubled sister. 12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiography of the same name, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is deceived and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. All three films have been critically lauded, but 12 Years a Slave is the first to taste mainstream success, and has been considered a frontrunner for multiple Oscars since it first premiered at the Telluride Festival in August.
McQueen’s meteoric rise to success is due in part to his long-time association with actor and friend Michael Fassbender. Now famous for rebooting the character of Magneto in X-Men: First Class, Fassbender first achieved critical acclaim playing Bobby Sands in Hunger. McQueen cast him in vital roles in his two subsequent films as well, and for good reason. Fassbender is at his best when allowed to play on contradictions, creating tension between magnetic physical presence and emotional vulnerability. In Hunger and Shame, in which he stars as a sex addict, this means whittling his aggressive physicality down to the bone; his character in 12 Years a Slave, a sadistic and unhinged slave owner named Edwin Epps, is no less destructive, but the physical evidence of his emotions are displaced onto others.
McQueen’s films are characterized by long stretches without speech punctuated by intense, memorable dialogues. He lets the camera do the talking until the very moment it can’t. The beginning and end ofHunger focus on the prisoners’ physical torment: first from the guards, and second from within as Sands starves himself to death to protest his countrymen’s treatment. Fassbender lost more than thirty pounds for the role. It is not as dramatic a transformation as Christian Bale’s for The Machinist (Bale lost sixty-three pounds for the role, and gained back one hundred to play Batman the following year), but the effects are no less shocking. McQueen’s camera caresses the disintegration of Sands’ body; it follows as his fingertips trace the bared bars of his ribcage, shudders when a nurse dabs at the weeping bed sores on his back. An orderly carries Sands to the bath and his head looks like it could not possibly be attached to that breathing skeleton; his limbs look ready to disintegrate with each heartbeat.
Between these sections is a stunning seventeen-minute dialogue in which a priest attempts to talk Sands out of the slow suicide of a hunger strike. The scene is filmed as a static, continuous shot, evoking the atmosphere of a play, moving the film into a different type of emotional intimacy. Sandwiched as it is between acts of such bodily horror, this scene, which includes philosophical discussions of God, family, and country, is intensely disorienting.
Shame does not deal with such disfiguring injuries, but the scars are no less damaging for being emotional ones. Brandon is a successful New Yorker whose struggles with sex addiction come to a peak when his troubled sister drops by for an extended visit. Burdened with an NC-17 rating in the US, it did not receive the same audience or critical acclaim as Hunger, and it has become better known for co-starring Fassbender’s penis than for its cinematic achievements. If one can get past the nudity, the film is an extraordinary exploration of the breakdown of the human psyche. McQueen’s film about sex is decidedly unsexy. A threesome scene near the end is perhaps the most distressing: McQueen’s camera fragments the three bodies in disturbing ways, making the moment feel more like an orgiastic, squelching alien visitation than a sex scene. Brandon’s addiction becomes the extraterrestrial host, manipulating his body while his face can only display its detached horror.
Shame and Hunger are undeniable accomplishments in fringe filmmaking, and the success of these projects has allowed McQueen to move on to bigger, more ambitious projects. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen makes full use of his expanded budget, more than triple that of Shame. Gorgeous cinematography captures the uneasy beauty of historic Louisiana plantations. Hans Zimmer’s non-intrusive score slides perfectly into McQueen’s moments of quiet: as Solomon struggles to mix ink, or during the intense opening sequence where another slave turns to him for physical comfort. In a shot directly evocative of the similar moment in Hunger, another slave tends to Solomon’s back after a violent whipping. Instead of injecting superfluous dialogue, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley allow such moments to unfold and speak for themselves.
As always, McQueen’s camera is unflinching and impartial. It accepts the heinous contradictions of a good man who justifies the practice of owning others, of a slave woman who becomes her master’s mistress and now commands slaves of her own. History and human decency give us lenses for judgement, but what can one say when Solomon turns from a woman screaming his name, knowing she will be raped, knowing his interference would lead to punishment or death for both of them?
12 Years a Slave sits itself at the crux of contradiction, refusing to turn from moral relativism for the sake of emotional ease. Solomon Northup is a virtuoso violinist, can read and write, and retains willpower when other men might have broken. As his first owner says, he is an “exceptional nigger”—but this will do nothing to save him.
And the incredible thing is, it doesn’t. Every attempt Solomon makes to utilize his distinctions—writing letters, invoking powerful friends, speaking like a gentleman—only serves to worsen his situation. Solomon’s spiritual endurance owes nothing to the skills that white society recognizes as exceptional, and his physical salvation comes not from his own wiles, but from the blind luck of meeting a white man willing to help him. We know Solomon’s story because he was saved and wrote it down—but McQueen never lets us forget that the only truly exceptional thing about him is that he survives.
McQueen now has the chance to enter popular consciousness as a director to be reckoned with. Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o (in her first screen role as Patsey, the object of Edwin Epps’ obsession) are already raking in acting awards. At this point in the season 12 Years a Slave is considered one of the few locks for a Best Picture nomination, and many sources are already calling it the definitive film on American slavery. McQueen has proven himself a virtuoso director willing to tackle complicated and taboo topics, bringing light to the core of human suffering.