The searing 12 Years a Slave won Sir Steve McQueen an Oscar in 2014, establishing him as one of Britain’s top film directors with its great performances and startling storytelling. But does every film from a black director, with a largely black cast, really have to be one that makes a trenchant point with brilliance? Why is it not possible for black talent to make run-of-the-mill, or even “crappy”, entertainment for general consumption?
This is the provocative question McQueen posed on Saturday, as he argued that film-makers of colour are still held to higher standards than their white counterparts.
In a live interview staged by the magazine Esquire, the 51-year-old Londoner said the film industry will only be “in a good place” when poor-quality black-led films also see regular release.
The Turner Prize-winning artist, whose latest film, Mangrove, premiered this month, was commenting on the recent release of a string of commercial and critical hits centred on black stories, such as Get Out and Black Panther. These acclaimed films were made by black directors and have black stars, but remain a rarity.
“They have to be super-special-good for them to come out,” he told the audience of a virtual Esquire Townhouse event. “So when we get crappy black films and we don’t think about it, then we’re in a good place.”
McQueen was sick, he said, of welcoming high-profile, empty acknowledgements of the importance of racial equality and wanted to see actual progress instead.
“If I have to do a somersault about a stamp on a Royal Mail envelope? I’m sorry, we want real change. I’m not interested in some kind of symbolic gesture,” he said.
The widespread unrest prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis would only be historically significant, he said, if it brought genuine action.
“Black people live in a state of extremes,” he said, adding that he had not yet wanted to watch footage of the killing. “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,” McQueen said. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, it chips at you and I have not seen the George Floyd tape, I’ve not seen it actually, yet – I say yet, if I ever see it I’m not too sure if I will, I don’t know.”
Despite the pandemic, McQueen has had an active year, with a show at the Tate, and the recent London Film Festival screening of the first of his five Small Axe films. Mangrove, which stars Letitia Wright, centres on the case of nine West Indians who first fought police harassment and then a court case and which is known by the name of a restaurant in Notting Hill. The film and its four sequels will be shown by the BBC.
In June the artist also wrote a forthright and influential opinion piece for the Observer bemoaning the continued white dominance he finds on the sets of British film and television drama.
This weekend McQueen spoke of the hidden impact of sensing racial prejudice around you. “It’s the fact that, the pain that these things bring is tremendous, it’s not light. Even if you feel it doesn’t do anything to you, it is doing something to you,” he said. “The fact that people have been getting out on the streets, black and white people getting on the street, is great, but let’s see where we get to.”