“I’m sorry, we want real change. I’m not interested in symbolic gestures.”
These frank words are one of the many stirring points made by the extraordinary director Steve McQueen during his talk at Esquire Townhouse @ Your House 2020 with Breitling. The auteur’s works include the unflinching and exacting 12 Years a Slave, a film which saw him become the first Black director or producer to win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year, in 2014. From his exploration of the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland in 2008 film Hunger, to his portrait of sexuality and depravity in Shame, and even his Turner Prize-winning silent film ‘Deadpan’, everything Steve McQueen makes has a sense of weight and urgency which demands your attention.
In addition to appearing on the cover of Esquire this month, in conversation with Rainbow Milk author Paul Mendez, McQueen joined Esquire Editor-in-Chief Alex Bilmes for a discussion at this year’s Esquire Townhouse.
Here are seven of the major talking points from the discussion which touched on the history of racial politics in the UK, the pressing need to tell these stories before the people who were there are gone, and the “heavy” and “exhilarating” year which 2020 has been.
Acknowledging the extremes which Black people live in in 2020
Discussing the momentous and difficult year which 2020 has been, McQueen talked about reconciling the joy of seeing people marching for the Black Lives Matter protests with the unique pain of knowing this was because a man had been killed at the hands of the police.
He explained: “Black people live in a state of extremes: when you’re looking at an image of someone being beaten by the police, by the law, by the establishment, and not being reprimanded, not being pulled up on it, not being charged time and time and time again, it does something to you inside. Mentally, physically, spiritually, it chips at you.”
Later he spoke about how much it took for the movement we have seen to take hold, saying: “A man had to die with someone’s knee on his neck for over nine minutes, there had to be a global pandemic, there had to be millions of people marching on the street all over the world for people to think, ‘hmm maybe there’s something wrong here’. I’m sorry, we want real change. I’m not interested in some kind of symbolic gesture.”
Art is inherently political
When asked if he considers himself a political artist, McQueen responded by saying, “I don’t know who isn’t, really”, adding that, in his view, there’s little in life that doesn’t have a political element. “To fall in love is political: where has that person come from? How did they get there? How did they meet? It’s all political,” he said. “There’s nothing which is innocent. Nothing which is divorced from the environment that we live in, absolutely not.”Small Axe Trailerby Esquire UKPlay Video
How his new film series Small Axe looks at racial politics within the police force
In Small Axe, McQueen’s new series of five films for BBC One – made up of ‘Lovers Rock’, ‘Red, White and Blue’, ‘Education’, ‘Mangrove’ and ‘Alex Wheatle’ – he creates intense vignettes about race in Britain. In ‘Red, White and Blue’, starring John Boyega, he tells the story of Leroy Logan, a British police officer in the Eighties whose job put him at odds with his Jamaican father. “I knew that I wanted to do something about the police,” he said. “The whole idea of a Black person – not integrating into the police, but more, submerging himself into an institution in order to make change.”
Speaking about how things this dichotomy would still resonate with people, he said, “I think a lot of Black people will see ‘Red White and Blue’ and understand it completely because it’s not just about the police, it’s about other organisations you get into it and then that’s it, there’s no moving up or there’s a barrier.”
One film was inspired by his family history
In ‘Lovers Rock’, McQueen delves into his own past, telling the story of how his uncle used to leave the backdoor open for his aunt to attend blues house parties. “My grandmother would not let my aunt go, so she used to sneak off from Shepherd’s Bush to Ladbroke Grove to go to blues,” he said. “It was a house party because what happened was Black people were not welcome in the clubs in London, therefore people thought, ‘We’ll make our own’, and the front living-rooms would turn into sort of a discotheque. As such, the carpet was taken out, and the sofas and whatever, and put into the spare room and that would be made into the dance floor.”
The film is one of the more joyful moments in the series, showing how “music can be healing” and painting a picture of the escapism which the weekend could offer from the brutal week. “That party in ‘Lovers Rock’,” McQueen said. “There’s something so universal about it that I love. It’s a celebration of the senses: taste, smell, sensuality, sexuality, every single sense is celebrated, absolutely.”
Why these stories need to be told now
“One of the most important things about Small Axe for me was that I wanted to tell these stories before some people died,” McQueen said. “I know it sounds morbid, but there was a lot of people passing away and the stories weren’t told. These are great British stories that in some ways might have been swept underneath the carpet.”
Discussing the people who had inspired characters in his films, people who had suffered violence and prejudice before his time, McQueen said that he, “wanted to make something for the people who had made my life possible.”
He also acknowledged the unfortunate relevance of these tales by saying, “These stories are about the past but they’re very much about the present, because all they do is echo what’s happening now.”
“Let’s not play”
In a striking reminder of how Black culture has been hijacked without advancing Black causes, McQueen said powerfully: “It’s not Black British culture, it’s British culture, period. We changed everything, even the way you dress. Everything. The mods, rockers, everything. Let’s not play.”
On the goals of his work
McQueen spoke about what creative fulfilment meant to him and what he hopes to achieve with his art. “I don’t want to break anything but what I do want to do is illuminate and change things, make change possible,” he said. “Without that, we as humans we don’t advance, we just stay the same we go round and round in circles and no one wants to do that, everyone wants to advance. It’s sexy being intelligent, understanding the environment you’re in. Who wants to be ignorant?”Highlights of Steve McQueen at Esquire Townhouse, Talking Racism, BLM and ‘Small Axe’by Esquire UKPlay Video related story