Steve McQueen and his latest film are being overwhelmed with awards and admiration from every direction. It just has won a Golden Globe and is one of the hottest contenders for the oncoming Oscars later in early March. 12 Years a Slave has already been critically examined by dozens of reviews all over the web and the papers. Why have another review praising the emotional acting, the brilliant cinematography and the unique sense of storytelling. Perhaps not, but it is worth looking at the film by looking at Steve McQueen and his previous work.
The director’s success doesn’t come from nowhere. Before making feature films, McQueen had received with Turner Prize the highest award given to a British visual artist. Although he always has been working with film, he also has created sculptures and was an official Iraq war artist in 2006. His first short films were rather experimental works, which were influenced by the Nouvelle Vague movement and the films of Andy Warhol.
McQueen does not like to make compromises concerning his works, which can be seen in his latest work 12 Years a Slave with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the main role as Solomon Northup. The story is strictly based on the book of the same name that was Northup’s diary. The story is fairly simple and straightforward. Northup was a free man, but kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film shows how he survived and maintained his humility during one of the darkest moments in the American history. Although the set up of the story is already widely known to the general and ingrained in general culture, McQueen zooms in on certain features, such as humanity and humility. Filmed in the beautiful setting of Louisiana, the film offers visual beauty and carefully composed frames and mixes them with intense one-take scenes of cruelty.
The director is not afraid of heavy themes, as 12 Years a Slave is not the first intense film he made and by far not the most extreme. While Shame (2011) depicted the hypersexuality of a sex addict, Hunger (2008) was visually even more penetrating as it thematised the hunger strike of the imprisoned IRA-member Bobby Sands in 1976. Although all of McQueen’s films have a different subject matter, there is something that unites them. Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave are primarily about being human. They simply have different stories to explore that condition. McQueen also has stated several times in interviews that a film, any of his films for that matter, can perhaps be a point of departure to something bigger. This is one of the reasons why Steve McQueen distinguishes himself from other contemporary filmmakers that reach such a wide audience. Whether drawing attention to a political issue, to addiction or most recently to cruelty, McQueen values the dialogue that can be created after and beyond the film. Even though McQueen has arrived with 12 Years a Slave in Hollywood, he will not let loose of his independence as an artist.