Steve McQueen on the Oscars Whitewash

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Speaking to Steve Rose (The Guardian) about the Oscars “whitewash” debate, Hollywood apartheid, and his new projects, Steve McQueen says, “I’m hoping we can look back and say this was a watershed moment.” Rose writes, “The only black director to win best picture says change has to happen now.” McQueen, whose parents hail from Grenada and Trinidad, muses on what he would do differently if he were in charge of a movie studio: “Give people more opportunities to make interesting movies. Fantastic movies.” See excerpts here and access the full article and interview below:

“This is exactly like MTV was in the 1980s,” says Steve McQueen. “Could you imagine now if MTV only showed music videos by a majority of white people, then after 11 o’clock it showed a majority of black people? Could you imagine that happening now? It’s the same situation happening in the movies.”

McQueen doesn’t have a film to promote, he can’t yet talk about his forthcoming projects for HBO or the BBC. He just wants to talk about the Oscar Problem: the fact that not a single non-white actor has been nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, for the second year running. Spike Lee has declined to attend this year’s ceremony, and since then the retributions, condemnations and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag have turned into an unprecedented crisis for cinema’s most prestigious awards. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton put it concisely: “Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains: the higher up you get, the whiter it gets.” Snoop Dogg was more blunt: “Fuck that old slavery bullshit-ass award show.” At the time of writing, a backlash to the backlash is also underway: best actress nominee Charlotte Rampling feels the call for proper representation from the Academy is “racist to whites”. As the only black director to have ever won a best picture Oscar, McQueen feels a responsibility to speak up.

“Hopefully, when people look back at this in 20 years, it’ll be like seeing that David Bowie clip in 1983.” He is referring to a clip that has been widely circulated online since Bowie’s death, in which the singer politely assails his interviewer about MTV’s under-representation of black artists. “I don’t even want to wait 20 years,” McQueen continues. “Forgive me; I’m hoping in 12 months or so we can look back and say this was a watershed moment, and thank God we put that right.”

It’s familiar territory for the artist and filmmaker. In 2013, when 12 Years a Slave was in its awards-season limelight, The Hollywood Reporter put together a roundtable discussion featuring McQueen and six other (white, male) directors in the Oscar running that year, including Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman and Bennett “Moneyball” Miller. It is pretty excruciating. Particularly when the host asks, Alan Partridge-style: “You’re all men. Only one of you, Steve, is a minority. Why is that?” McQueen replies with an impassioned attack on Hollywood’s lack of diversity. “It’s shameful, it’s unbelievable. It’s bizarre!” When he has finished, the interviewer asks: “Anybody want to explain, take that on?” There’s an awkward pause. Then Reitman says: “I’m not stepping into that.” As if McQueen has just shat on the carpet – which, metaphorically speaking, you could say he has. [. . .]

Since the furor arose two weeks ago, the Academy has issued a series of apologias and pledges of reform, but McQueen essentially agrees with Lee’s comments that the Academy Awards is “not where the ‘real’ battle is”. He says: “One could talk about percentages of certain people who are Academy members and the demographics and so forth, but the real issue is movies being made. Decisions being made by heads of studios, TV companies and cable companies about what is and is not being made. That is the start. That is the root of the problem.”

It is not just actors and directors either; it is also “below the line” industry personnel. “It’s like Johannesburg in 1976, if you go behind the scenes,” he says. “I made two British movies [Hunger and Shame] and I never met one person of colour in any below-the-line situations. Not one. No black, no Asian, no one. Like, hello? What’s going on here? Very odd.”

When it came to working in the US, making 12 Years a Slave, McQueen was adamant that he wouldn’t let the same thing happen again, particularly not on a film about slavery, of all things. “I expressly said in a meeting, ‘Look, I can’t make this movie in a situation where I don’t see any black faces other than my own behind the camera. We need to employ certain people.’ I made that very clear and it was attended to.” [. . .]

[Photo above: Armando Gallo/Corbis.]

For full article, see http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jan/24/steve-mcqueen-oscars-whitewash-watershed-moment

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