By Decca Aitkenhead
Steve McQueen has known about slavery for as long as he can remember. To the son of West Indian parents, slavery’s history is the story of his very existence: “So there is a weight on your chest, on your back, from a very early age. ” Yet he cannot recall having ever felt angry about it.
“Angry?” He looks puzzled. “No. You feel hurt that someone did such things, but angry? No.” To McQueen, the notion sounds as bizarre as finding slavery funny. “Painful, sure. Hurt, absolutely. I don’t know if that can be seen as anger. Not to say that I’m not angry with injustice, of course – and slavery is a huge injustice. But thinking about it that way? No.” From his baffled expression, you might think him literally unaware that anger is quite a common response.
Like many artists, McQueen experiences the world from a highly singular perspective. As a working-class boy growing up in 1980s suburbia, “there were no examples of artists who were like me. When did you ever see a black man doing what I wanted to do?” His father kept telling him to get a trade; even when his son began to be successful, “he was still taking the piss, saying to my friend, ‘Do you understand what Steve does?'” McQueen’s first film, Bear, was 10 minutes long, silent, and consisted of two naked men, one of them him, wordlessly circling each other, staring and sparring.
He has never been interested in pleasing mainstream tastes, but no matter how uncompromising his work, it keeps becoming more and more popular. After winning the 1999 Turner prize with a video installation filmed from an old oil drum rolling through Manhattan, he was awarded an OBE, followed in 2011 by a CBE. His first feature film, Hunger, released in 2008, was a remorselessly gruelling portrayal of Bobby Sands starving himself to death in the Maze prison, and not an easy sell, but the critics went wild and McQueen won a Bafta. Shame, his second movie, could not have been a less sexy study of sex addiction, but took more than £10m at the box office. The director shot his latest movie in just 35 days, with one camera and a budget of barely £10m, and wasn’t even confident of finding a distributor brave enough to take it. This week 12 Years A Slave opens in Britain, having already earned $40m (£25m) in US ticket sales, multiple Golden Globe nominations and countless predictions of an Academy Award that would make McQueen the first black feature film director to win an Oscar.