Nominee Profile: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
The Golden Globe nominee for Best Director has made only three feature films so far, but he has already established himself as a tough and unsparing film maker, one who tackles gritty subjects in a highly visual manner.
McQueen (45) who was born in London to immigrants from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, confronted racism as a young student when he was placed in a class for those destined to be manual laborers. He prevailed and went on to study art in London and New York, but found early on that the academic world was too stifling. The movie-makers he admired were all free spirits and experimental, cinema icons such as Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Vigo, Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder and Andy Warhol. Out of school he started by making short films,16 millimeters, mostly in black and white, several of them featuring himself. From his very first short, Bear (1993) McQueen showed interest in issues of race, eroticism, politics and violence, subjects that would later mark his three feature films, including his present Golden Globes contender, 12 Years a Slave.
McQueen made eight short films, which were mostly projected on walls of art galleries in Europe and in the U.S.A. He won Britain's top art prize, the Turner in 1999, and ten years later he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Art Biennale.
By then, McQueen had written and directed his first feature film, Hunger. It featured newcomer Michael Fassbender, and started a close collaboration between director and actor, who would re-team two more times. The movie told the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike protesting the British occupation. It won newcomer McQueen the Camera D'Or award (for a first time director) at the Cannes Film festival in 2009, and several other film prizes around the world.
McQueen's second feature Shame (2011) also starred Fassbender, this time as a hedonistic, sex-addicted British yuppie living in New York. But in his third feature, 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender played only a supporting role, as McQueen tackled the issue of slavery in the United States. The lead this time is Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Eijofor, who portrays Solomon Northup, the slave of the title, who wrote about his experiences and published his harrowing story as a book in 1853.
Hunger strike in Ireland, sexual obsession in New York and slavery in the South; McQueen explained in an exclusive interview with the HFPA what drew him to such seemingly disparate subjects: "I am a person who likes people. I make films about people. For me it's important firstly, before I think what color a person is. ..Eleven people dying in a British prison cell [in Hunger]..was of high importance. ...Sex, [in Shame] involves all of us, filtering into our daily lives, and of course now, slavery, [in 12 Years] for me was a very important subject, that I haven't seen given proper treatment. So now, with a black president, on the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, with Trayvon Martin [in the news], I wanted to make a movie about slavery, I think it galvanizes people to engage with [the issue of] slavery".
12 Years provided just the right vehicle for McQueen, who wrote his first two films. He again started by writing an original script about a free person captured into slavery. But he was looking for actual historical references, when his companion found the book and suggested that he look into this true story of kidnap and slavery. McQueen was elated: "I needed the right in, and this book provided it. I opened it and each page was reading like a script. Each page was a revelation. It was miraculous."
12 Years was warmly embraced by critics and audiences alike, and has already garnered well over 80 awards and nominations as it goes into the Golden Globes with six nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actors Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender, Best Screenplay by John Ridley, and of course the person responsible for all of that -Best Director Steve McQueen.
McQueen is happy about having brought this story to the screen. "When we put [it] into a popular art form, the cinema, it has such galvanizing force and power. You want to leave this earth having made something of value." This McQueen has certainly done, win or lose on Sunday.