Today we’re wishing a very Happy Birthday to the inimitable director, writer and producer, Steve McQueen, by taking you through a list of some of his best and most unmissable works to date!
Image credits © Rolling Stone
McQueen is an undisputed staple of the British filmmaking industry, and a pioneer of Black British filmmakers, having been the first Black filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for ’12 Years A Slave’. McQueen is also a recipient of the BFI Fellowship, as well as a Knighthood from the Queen’s New Years’ Honours list for 2020. This acclaimed director began his career as a visual artist, winning the coveted Turner Prize in 1999, before embarking on his filmmaking journey with a series of short films. Uncompromising, honest, and bold, McQueen’s work is singular in its fierce directness and unflinching search for truth.
Often gravitating towards political stories, McQueen’s films document many different facets of Black history, from 19th century slavery in America, to 1980s fallouts in race relations in the UK. McQueen has spoken about his desire to immortalize these stories on film, to educate new generations about the tragedies of the past:
When I was growing up, we did not learn about our own history unfortunately, which is why ‘Roots’ (1977) was so popular. Anything about any kind of Black history, even if it wasn’t great, or even if it wasn’t necessarily positive, Black people would flock to the television. I remember the streets were empty when ‘Roots’ was on because we were not visible in any way.
Take a look at our pick of McQueen’s top 5 works to date, and make sure to add these to your watchlist for #BlackHistoryMonth!
1. 12 Years A Slave
Image credits © The Hollywood Reporter
This powerful portrayal of life under slavery in the 19th century helped put McQueen on the map as one of the most formidable filmmakers of his generation, as well as launching the career of Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her fierce depiction of the role of Patsey. Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir, of the same name, the film tells the incredible and heart-breaking story of an educated carpenter and musician from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. The visceral and brutal presentation of the abhorrent treatment of slaves makes this film hard to watch, but impossible to forget.
2. Small Axe
Image credits © The New York Times
McQueen’s five-part anthology series tells four true stories, and one fictional one, about the lives of Afro-Caribbeans living in the UK from the late 60s to the early 80s. The series is unique in canonizing Black British stories that have been forgotten or side-lined over the years, bringing them to light in the present day. Speaking to the Irish Times about his desire to tell these marginalized stories, McQueen said:
People didn’t talk about these things. It was maybe to do with the post-traumatic stress disorder from what happened. I didn’t know about the Mangrove Nine until 12 years ago. That’s interesting. I am 51 years old. I only found out about these things in middle age. People were traumatized.
‘Small Axe’ meticulously recreates the atmosphere and visual appearance of late 20th century Britain from a British-Caribbean perspective and is perhaps McQueen’s most accomplished work to date. A must-see from the Steve McQueen vaults!
Image credits © Blast! Films
McQueen’s debut feature tells the story of Provisional IRA member, Bobby Sands, as he leads a hunger strike against conditions in HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland in 1981. This film marked the beginning of a long-standing and successful series of collaborations between McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender, and sets the tone for McQueen’s future, historically influenced, true-to-life storytelling throughout the rest of his career. McQueen’s portrayal of the extreme conditions for both officers and inmates in the Maze prison is shocking. Speaking about his experience shooting the film, McQueen said:
Making that movie with Michael was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had. Nobody expected anything from us. Nobody believed in us. We just came together as an artistic family and made it happen. Everything else is based on that.
Image credits © Vanity Fair
‘Shame’ is McQueen’s sophomore feature, and he again teamed up with Michael Fassbender to tell this New-York based psychological drama. The film also stars Carey Mulligan and was praised by critics for its realistic and courageous portrayal of the difficulties of addiction. The intensity of Fassbender’s character ‘Brandon Sullivan’, and his feelings, is expertly captured by McQueen’s uncompromising direction; he makes use of incredibly still, long-takes which are eerily captivating. The film was included in dozens of ‘Top 10’ lists for 2011 and, in 2016, it was ranked as one of the 100 greatest motion pictures since 2000 in BBC Culture’s critics’ poll. This is one of McQueen’s most intricately constructed and memorable movies.
Image credits © IndieWire
McQueen’s most recent offering, and his first foray into the world of documentary filmmaking, ‘Uprising’, is a 3-part docuseries made for the BBC, with James Rogan. The series delves into three tragic and defining events in the history of race relations in the UK, which all took place in 1981: the New Cross house fires, the Black People’s Day of Action protest, and the Brixton Riot. McQueen described the experience of making the series as ‘an honour’, as he was able to use the documentary form to tell these stories through the eyes and voices of the survivors and participants. The series also acts as a factual companion piece to ‘Small-Axe’, as it provides the historical context for many of the stories in that series.
What’s your favourite Steve McQueen production? Keep the conversation going by letting us know on social media, and don’t forget to share this watchlist with a friend!