Steve McQueen: making history

Collecting the Oscar for best picture for 12 Years a Slave, British filmmaker Steve McQueen became the first ever black producer to win the award. But the Academy Awards still have a long way to go in the diversity stakes, says Ashley Clark.

Ashley Clark

Steve McQueen with director of photography Sean Bobbitt on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen with director of photography Sean Bobbitt on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

At this year’s Academy Awards, the London-born, Amsterdam-based filmmaker Steve McQueen became the first ever black producer on a best picture winner. His powerful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave, beat stiff competition from Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity to scoop the top prize.

McQueen was one of seven producers on the film (alongside the likes of Brad Pitt and veteran producer Arnon Milchan), but his involvement is significant. Only five times in the Academy’s history has a black figure – all of whom have been male – been up for the same producing award: Quincy Jones (The Color Purple, 1985); Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009); Broderick Johnson (The Blind Side, 2009); Reginald Hudlin (Django Unchained, 2012); and now McQueen. The film’s screenwriter, John Ridley, became only the second black recipient of the best adapted screenplay award (following Precious writer Geoffrey Fletcher), and only the fourth to be nominated.

Hunger (2008)

Hunger (2008)

The best picture award caps a remarkable rise to the top for Steve McQueen, who made his name in the contemporary art world (he won the Turner Prize in 1999), before turning to filmmaking in 2008 with Hunger. For his debut – a harrowing fictionalisation of the last days of hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) – McQueen won the Caméra d’or award for best first film at Cannes; the first Brit to do so. His follow-up, the New York-set Shame (2011), took a similarly unsparing look at a sex addict, also played by Fassbender.

12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s third film, and it too has been lavishly garlanded with praise, awards and column inches since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2013. All of McQueen’s films have focused upon a male figure trapped in a socio-, physio-, or psychological prison with little chance of escape on their own terms.

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on location for Shame (2011)

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on location for Shame (2011)

This is all well and good, but what can we draw from the film’s victory, and McQueen’s involvement in it? As Austin Powers once memorably questioned of Basil Exposition, “Whoop-de-doo! But what does it all mean?”

Firstly, the award is worth celebrating for basic practical reasons, because the film is a bold, controlled statement of intent which clearly portrays a sense of purpose on the part of its director and his team. It tackles a difficult subject in a brusque manner hitherto unseen in Hollywood, and it features a host of exceptional performances. Put simply: it is a good film.

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Yet the waters become muddied when one attempts to assess the award on a symbolic level. We can safely say that, while undoubtedly heartening, it does not mean that the playing field is suddenly level, and all the old inequalities of the industry will melt away. A recent infographic posted on the New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog revealed that Academy membership is 94% white and 77% male. Another particularly damning stat showed how that of the Academy’s 87 best actress winners, only one – Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2001) has been anything other than white. Just like when Barack Obama became the America’s first ‘black’ president (he is mixed-race, but that doesn’t seem to have penetrated the media narrative), it doesn’t mean that institutional inequality is finished.

McQueen lost out on the best director award to Alfonso Cuarón, who himself became the first Latin American recipient of the accolade. Yet if McQueen had won, it’s not as though he’d have been one of a host of black directors to have succeeded where scores of others had narrowly, recently missed out. It may surprise some to discover that McQueen was not merely the first black British director to be nominated for best director, but only the third black director in the awards’ 87-year history.

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

McQueen followed John Singleton, who became the first African-American nominee (for Boyz N the Hood, 1991). At 24, Singelton was also the youngest ever nominee for the award; a record that still stands. He was followed by Lee Daniels, who got the nod in 2010 for Precious. Something that ties all of these films together is their issue-based focus on the torturing and destruction of black bodies. Perhaps an even more noteworthy achievement would be to have a black director nominated for a film in which black life was celebrated. Maybe, whisper it, a comedy?

All of this means that there have been no nominations for great black directors like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier, Haile Gerima or the ironically named trailblazer Oscar Micheaux, who famously worked outside the Hollywood system. Instead, it’s black acting talent which has fared better at the Oscars, particularly in recent years, with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry (again mixed-race), Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Octavia Spencer, Morgan FreemanMo’NiqueJennifer Hudson and, now, Lupita Nyong’o all walking off with statuettes.

Precious (2009)

Precious (2009)

It should be noted here that the Academy’s grave problem with diversity is not restricted to race. The situation is scarcely any better for women: only four have ever been nominated for the award: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow, who ultimately won, for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Bigelow’s win was widely seen as a watershed moment but, and here’s the kicker – to be heeded by anyone getting carried away by McQueen’s victory – she is the last woman to be nominated for the award.

Reacting to the win poses another problem: merely drawing attention to the fact that McQueen is the first ‘black’ person to be awarded for his role in winning the best picture Oscar (as this article unfortunately does) runs the very real risk of ‘othering’ the artist in question, and adding to the often dismaying discourse in Hollywood that places films, filmmakers and audiences in certain boxes. USA Today recently ran a terribly silly headline describing the ultra-conventional romantic comedy The Best Man Holiday as “race-themed”, presumably because it has black people in it. Trade journal Variety recently described 12 Years a Slave as “urban-targeted” – again, presumably because it has black people in it. Such attitudes run deep.

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The award will certainly afford McQueen a higher profile and more industry clout to be able to make films on his own terms. This doesn’t mean that he must automatically go and make contemporary black narratives. One wonderful thing about McQueen’s career thus far is that he has steadfastly refused to be pigeonholed, and doesn’t refer to himself as a black filmmaker, but rather a filmmaker who happens to be black. He is patently not fussed with the burden of representation, and this is refreshing. (That said, this author would welcome a few more black London cinema narratives.)

Perhaps the most significant potential long-term effect of McQueen’s triumph is that it will provide succour and inspiration to a younger generation of black filmmakers, who now have a new role model to look up to. Whatever one may feel about the Oscars (a showcase of the best cinema has to offer? A thinly-veiled extension of Hollywood marketing and PR? A thigh-slapping jamboree of glad-handing inanity?), there can be no doubting its status as the industry’s most historic and prestigious major event, with a vast international reach and a proud reputation.

Today, a host of budding black filmmakers around the world will be looking at the images of McQueen’s triumph and thinking to themselves, “I can do that too.” This can only be a good thing, because cinema is about storytelling, and the more diverse range of people we can source these stories from, the better.

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