Steve McQueen Is Not Here for ‘Happy-Clappy’ Disney Movies
The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “12 Years a Slave” and “Small Axe” discusses his BBC docuseries “Uprising,” how “12 Years a Slave” changed the conversation, and much more.
Steve McQueen isn’t here for the easy sh*t. There will be no time nor energy spent on what the Academy-award winning director calls “happy-clappy” movies, ensuring that he’ll probably never make the Disney pivot. But even more, his ethic of truth-telling and singularity of focus is as brutal as it is refreshing.
His lens lingers on the face of Alex Wheatle wrapped in a straitjacket, his face seething after getting into a fight with racist students at his school. It sits there, its static intensity conveying the utter injustice of a child who didn’t know how to love himself but would protect himself out of a recognition of himself as a person. The straitjacket hugs him tightly as if to animate the notion that in a white world, the love Black kids show themselves will ultimately confine them and isolate them as well. All of this conveyed without a single line of dialogue.
There’s that lens again, hovering over a Black wrist twisting and turning a ladle with rice and peas. A quick flash and, this time in hazily found footage, it catches the glint of a smile from West Indian emcees prepping speakers to blast reggae at the night’s romp. But it will not stand idly among the sweaty dancers, pacing across the battlefield that Brixton became in April 1981, just three months after a bombing—and one month after the Black People’s Day of Action shut down commercial London.
Wheatle’s story was a single thread in a tapestry of narratives that make up both Small Axe—the anthology film collection on the political and social struggles of Black British people in London from the late ’70s through the ’80s released on Amazon last year—and BBC’s Uprising, the three-part documentary film released in September that, in some ways, places Small Axe in context by exploring the history of Black London. Uprising chronicles the families, victims, activists and investigators involved in the 1981 New Cross Fire in southeast London where a party for and by young Black British teens was bombed, leaving 13 kids dead and hundreds scarred both physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives. But the production team, consisting of McQueen and James Rogan, were not just interested in the tragedy but the gorgeous, flavorful, coruscating culture of the people affected most directly.
“At some point after 40 years, there’s a sense of reflection and meditation,” McQueen glowingly says of his interview subjects—folks like Sandra Ruddock, who lost husband Paul and sister-in-law Yvonne; Andrew Gooding, who lost most of his friends to the fire and PTSD; Wayne Haynes, who broke his hip and has lifelong scars—many of whom battled with police and right-wing groups like the National Front.
Taken together, Small Axe and Uprising are the most salient, unwavering depictions of the state of Black British life in late 20th century London.
When we talked to him last week, McQueen opted to, often frustratingly, attempt to move himself to the background. “I don’t give a shit about myself. I’m here to facilitate a story,” he exclaimed. It’s clear that what matters most to him is doing the work, making the thing, and hopefully appealing to the senses and psyches of an audience enough that it may change their view of the world.
You were featured on a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. And in a moment of sheer honesty—
The Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable, where you mentioned the discrepancy between real life and real filmmaking [in terms of casting Black or Latino actors].
That was 10 years ago.
Well, that video just went viral recently. I’m not sure why. But have you heard from any other directors, maybe in the last 10 years, about that casting issue?
There’s no context for now. The context is everything: 10 years ago was 10 years ago. A lot has happened in that 10 years, I couldn’t care less if anyone has reached out or not reached out in that time. I don’t give a shit. What I can remember, I said what I said and that was it. And now that people are saying [it] now, that was before everything was being said. I just said what I wanted to say. I didn’t have anything to lose and didn’t give a shit.
I can respect that.
You have to put it in the context that it was done 10 years ago. So, put it in the context. Now everyone’s talking about whatever they’re talking about. But then? No.
People weren’t talking about it at all.
Certain people weren’t, that’s for sure. [Laughs]
Between Small Axe and Uprising, the collection of stories that you pulled together, specifically, I was thinking about Red, White and Blue—
This is meant to be about Uprising. Let’s stick with Uprising. I was told it was Uprising. Is this about Uprising or something else?
Well, for me, Small Axe and Uprising are most definitely connected, no?
You had Black police officers in Uprising too and I wondered what the experience was talking to constables who have a history of causing harm to Black neighborhoods in London, and whether that was revealing to you in the way they described their experience with the uprisings and the riots, and what kind of emotional response you might have had taking in their stories.
Emotional response I might have had? You want my response to what they said? That’s what you’re interested in?
Troubling. It’s always been troubling. I think It’s always been a difficult path to tread to be a member, especially in the U.K., and involved with the police. Because the oppression police brought with them against Black people was so severe, so visible, that I imagine that for Leroy Logan, he thought he could make a difference. One man can’t make a difference within the system. Therefore, I always questioned their motives. But you know, without people like that I imagine that things don’t change. So I still have trouble balancing that lot, evaluating it really, because if you don’t try we won’t succeed. I don’t know how to go forward, but you’re just hoping for good people who are trying to change the culture because it is a culture. What I learned while I was doing some stuff in the States: the police are the police. There’s race but when you are police, even in the police, you’re police. They protect themselves; they protect each other.
It reminded me of this quote by George Jackson that the law is fascist and about how fascism is already here. And as a manifestation of the law, the police themselves are fascist.
Well, if someone breaks into my house, guess what? I’m going to call the police. But I’m hoping these police have some sort of integrity. That’s all you can hope for. I think Black people have been hoping for a long, long time and the evidence is not overwhelming very often.
What I felt within Uprising was that it was personal to you obviously, as a Black British person, but also there seemed to be a sense of righteous anger from the people within it. Whether it’s the Goodings or Wayne Haynes, or, even some of the—
No. This is time. You’re bringing about something that happened 10 years ago in my interview, what happened then. We’ve got to talk about time. How old are you? Twentysomething?
Well, there you go. This is about people who had been dealing with this for 40 years. So the anger was there, don’t get me wrong, the anger was always there. But at some point after 40 years, there’s a situation of reflection and consideration—of where am I now and where was I then? This documentary for them was an opportunity to speak their truth. I think the documentary, if I can say this—these words might not be the best to use but they’re the only ones I can think of—was the best thing to happen to them in the last 40 years because they had two mistrials. And this documentary was a chance for them to say what they wanted and how they wanted to say it. So therefore, [in] the film you saw the anger in what happened.
But now, there’s a sort of an understanding of what happened then and where they are now. And that can only come through time. And it’s unfortunate because I don’t want to wait 40 years for justice. This is what happens; this is the situation we find ourselves. Often, these people in positions of power, it’s a time game for them. They know they’re wrong but they’re willing to go down the road of denial up until some point when they say, “Yeah yeah, you’re right,” but by that point it’s too late! That’s Black people’s lives. Now is the time. Charlie Parker. We don’t want to fucking wait forever, you know? It’s too late. My father lived and died in a situation where he didn’t see certain kinds of injustices being put to right. They played the long game. That’s what these people do. They know they’re wrong.
I feel that in a visceral way. I live in Philly now and after the George Floyd riots, my block on 52nd street was tear-gassed by the militarized police, so when I’m speaking about anger and watching your documentary, and watching these people have to chronicle what they felt in those situations, that’s what I related to and that’s why I brought that up.
Well, talk for yourself, don’t talk for the people you’re seeing. It’s a different kind of thing. It doesn’t go anywhere; you get wrong-footed. It’s what they had done for over 40 years: understood and considered the situation. That’s why they’re so poised, so articulate, and so reflective in this situation.
From what I’ve gathered in previous interviews around Uprising, there was a real care, and respect for their narratives. How have you seen narratives within Britain or the States mishandled?
I’m not interested in comparing that. I’m not interested in comparing. I don’t want to compare, why would I?
In their responses [in Uprising], there’s a lot of emotion on display. I wondered how those descriptions of that time impacted you? Just taking on their stories and words, was there a process for you to take care of yourself afterward?
I didn’t give a shit about myself. I’m here to facilitate their story. I’d rather put myself to the background and the people who are important to the foreground. Because someone can make me a hot chocolate afterwards, that’s not interesting to me. It’s about evidence. We’ve got no time for that nonsense. Evidence—it’s a time to get things down before people take it away from us. As an artist, it’s something you have to take onboard. But that’s not of interest. I’m not going to show you how the wire works and the strings. I want to show you what these people have told us. I am not important, they are. I’m just a facilitator for the story, that’s about it, so put me in the background.
But there are choices you have to make as a creator, right?
Like what choices?
One choice I was thinking of while watching Small Axe—I wondered what the political motivation was behind that in terms of, for example, the inclusion of Black literature like Claudia Jones or The Black Jacobins in Alex Wheatle. Were those things you were taking in and thinking about that helped to inform the stories told in Uprising?
You’re the critic—you can write what you think the connections were. I’m the artist—I just do what I do, that’s not my job, that’s your job. I do me, you do you. You can make those connections and so forth; I didn’t necessarily have those connections. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. When I was making Small Axe I wasn’t thinking about Uprising, I focused on one thing. And that thing might bleed into another, but that wasn’t the way I think, strategically. No, no.
Watching Uprising, something I was thinking about given the parties and how they put things together was the reaction to Lovers Rock and Mangrove. You’d mentioned before that Lovers Rock was like a fairy tale and watching Uprising it drove that point home. What do you make of people’s reaction to Lovers Rock as a source of joy versus the critical conversations around Uprising and even Education?
Ninety-eight percent of all blues parties in London at the time were successful; they were great nights out. There was only one New Cross Fire. There was only one New Cross Fire. So, you know, joy, in order to get to the joy you gotta do the work. You gotta do the work. I’m not particularly infatuated with joy, because Black people have been enjoying themselves for fucking time and a day. So people talk about fucking Black Joy like it’s a new thing; like it’s just been invented. That whole thing is bullshit as far as I’m concerned but maybe people need to hear it. OK, fine. But it’s as if Black people haven’t been enjoying themselves since day one. Yes, through the struggles and unfortunate situations we find ourselves in, but we’ve always been inventive, we’ve always been creative, we’ve always been celebratory. That’s the way we are.
I mean, look at Carnival in the West Indies. Look at Mardi Gras. These are big examples, of course, and then even what happens in one’s own household. So, that’s that. But the thing about it, there’s the rough and smooth. As an artist, I’m not going to put blinders on myself and only think of one thing, or one gaze. There are many things I want us to think about, and things we have to grapple with. So, as much as there’s joy, there’s always another side of it—and be brave enough to look at it and not make it bigger than us. Often people make it bigger than them and decorate it and make it into what it’s not. But if you look at something right in the eye, you kill it. But if you look at it right in the eye, stare it down, then it becomes smaller than you. And to camouflage it with whatever people camouflage it with, no, I’m not doing that. I’m not going to make anything like that bigger than me. So you look at it, you stare it down, and you own it.
Do you think about the audience at all when you’re making your movies?
I think if anyone tells you that they don’t, it’s just not true. But my audience is me, what do I wanna say? How do I wanna tell something? If I was any way other than that, I’d be making Disney movies or making other things to make people smile or whatever. Happy-clappy movies, you know? As an artist, like I said, you have to do the homework before you get the joy. That’s all. I can make a 12 Years a Slave and I can make a Lovers Rock but you have to tell the truth in these situations, and not have a situation where we have a fantasy of reality. But at the same time, there has to be a sense of redemption within whatever venture we take narratively. At the same time, I will not be afraid. We’ve come too far. People have lived and died to put me here speaking to you today so I’m not going to let them down in any way. As well as the pain, there is the joy as you said. As an artist, you have to balance. In some ways, what we’re dealing with is a kind of redemption and healing. It’s about not having any shadows anywhere and if there’s a shadow, not to decorate it with any camouflage. No, open. See it, take it out, it’s painful, it hurts, but without that pain you’re not going to get to any joy.
Maybe it’s not just unique to you, but in the landscape of mainstream Black directors there is an appeal to white interests and white sensibility in the content that people make. Earlier you were saying that you’re not trying to make a Marvel movie or a very straightforward Black action film. To me, whether it’s here or elsewhere, the films are very much [tailored] for white interest and white sensibility. I wondered about your reading of the state of Black content right now, and if you think that what people consider a successful Black TV show or successful Black film is actually for Black audiences.
I don’t know. I have no idea. I can only tell you what I wanna make. I’m hoping people will come and see it, but I can’t answer that question. If I was a little more strategic, I’d be doing other things I’d imagine. [Laughs]
Just not business-minded?
I didn’t get into this to make money; otherwise, I’d be wearing stripes and a shirt and braces. That’s the kind of uniform that one has to want to wear. I’m just in the art and the work, that’s what I’m after. I’m not interested in that. I understand that to make certain things, things have to make money. Making films is so damn expensive. And you know the three pictures that I first came out with, you don’t make those pictures trying to make money. That was the thing about 12 Years a Slave—it made so much bloody money. And I was told all kinds of shit about the movie, by default, in a way. That wasn’t my intention.
I think about that movie a lot. Obviously there was interest in Solomon Northup’s story, and it is a riveting story, but did its success, looking back on it, feel odd as someone who is so focused on the work and making the thing? For something to be so critically acclaimed as someone who doesn’t really care about that stuff?
Was I surprised?
I don’t know if it’s so much surprise or whether it was revealing?
It was. At the time, a lot of people were saying that Black feature films with Black content don’t travel outside the United States. They make little money, if any, in the United States. 12 Years a Slave blew the doors off that theory and so many other films were made because of it. It was like, oh wow, these films can travel, these films can make money. It was weird because we made it with $20 million, that was the thing. People wanted to see that narrative and to talk about it. What 12 Years a Slave did as a contribution to the conversation of slavery was immense and the contribution to the conversation about #OscarSoWhite. There were a lot of things this movie did. I think the movie was only made… if Obama hadn’t been the president, I don’t think it would’ve been made, because at that time, I get the impression that Obama was president, and it was like, “OK, we’ll do this one.” I wouldn’t say it was a favor but it was almost like “we’ll do it” because don’t forget the conversation [and] how it was nine years ago compared to how it is now. It feels like a different world. Completely different world. The conversation was different. Without that, that was a big thing.
When we made it, it changed things because people didn’t see it coming. But people wanted to see it, the performances and so forth. It changed the landscape. You can see before 12 Years a Slave and after 12 Years a Slave. But at the same time I’m not… you see what’s going on with Uprising, it’s like 40 years. Why wasn’t a documentary made before that? You see what I mean? It’s just unfortunate. As artists, thinkers, as people, we have to keep on talking, keep on getting out there. Like Tarana Burke with #MeToo, we have to keep knocking on the door. It’s only when white people take up the gauntlet that people start talking, it seems. It is what it is. And I say that… it is what it is, but I am not accepting it. I never did, ever. As you said, we started the conversation with what happened 10 years ago… I never did.