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Celebrating Steve McQueen this Black History Month

Since the enduring concept of Black History Month first came to the UK in the 1980s, it has been seen as a time to reflect, remember and shine a light on important parts of Black-British history from the transatlantic slave trade to the Bristol bus boycott in the 60’s.

However, an important component of Black History Month in recent times has been to recognize the wide-scale and influential contributions Black artists have made not only in this country but across the world. There is of course a long and varied list of inspiring and creative Black artists hailing from the UK, however, I think few are as important as filmmaker and video artist Steve McQueen.

Born in West London in 1969, to a Grenadan father and a Trinidadian mother, McQueen has often recalled the institutional racism he experienced at school, which placed him in a learning environment more fit for manual labour than the creative arts. This meant McQueen spent much of his school life cast aside and ignored by his teachers, who were blind to his undeniable talent. Having briefly delved into art at A level, he decided to take a Fine Arts degree at Goldsmith College, University of London.

But it was his time at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts where his passion for film was developed, mainly through confronting works from the likes of Andy Warhol, Sergei Einstein, and other iconic experimental filmmakers.

McQueen rose to prominence in the 1990s through short films and various art pieces. His exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on his short film Deadpan (1997) and video installation Drumhall (1998) won him the Turner Prize in 1999, awarded in recognition of the clarity in his vision and emotional intensity. The intellectual and technical vision McQueen demonstrated in his Turner Prize-winning art is something he would carry with him when he broke into the mainstream film industry with his 2008 film, Hunger.

I consider Hunger not only to be his best film, but one of the best British films of all time. It tells the story of imprisoned Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands, who led a hunger strike in the infamous HM Prison Maze, Northern Ireland, in 1981. But rather than giving a historical account of the events at that pivotal point of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, McQueen masterfully pulls the audience into a harrowing account of prison life which is brutal and grotesque.

McQueen would eventually achieve worldwide fame when he became the first Black director to win an Oscar for Best Picture in 2014 for his film 12 Years a Slave. The film grossed around $180 million worldwide, and the ascendant director had made the jump from independent arthouse to Hollywood mainstream without softening his style for mainstream audiences – something few directors have managed.

I think this feat encapsulates the brilliance of McQueen. He has managed to achieve popular critical acclaim whilst remaining grounded in his own vision, which has remained jarring and uncompromising. Crucially, he achieved all this despite the institutional obstacles thrown at him and has become one of the most formidable forces in the British film industry. The story of how a marginalised Black boy from Ealing can rise to become one of the best filmmakers of his era can be an inspiration to us all, particularly those committed to overcoming and dismantling the systems that tried to keep him down.

Image Credits: Chris Cheung via Wikimedia Commons