Steve McQueen made the Oscar-winning film ’12 Years a Slave,’ but did not win one for directing it. He is, however, the first Black filmmaker to win Best Picture. ‘Small Axe,’ an anthology of five films was directed by McQueen, too, but this list will consider them as five separate films.
While ‘Mangrove’ and ‘Lovers Rock’ were supposed to premiere at Cannes, they later premiered at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) along with ‘Red, White, and Blue.’
McQueen has, furthermore, been given the highest prize given to a visual artist in the UK – the Turner Prize. In 2016 he received the highest honour given by the BFI, i.e the BFI Fellowship. In 2011 McQueen was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 2020, he was knighted. The name is Sir Steven Rodney McQueen CBE!
Born in London, McQueen was a football player. He went on to study fine art at the University of London and briefly appeared at New York University’s Tisch, leaving both places to start making films. He made at least 13 shorts between 1993 and 2009, before switching to feature-length. This list is only going to consider the latter.
Married to a Dutch cultural critic, McQueen is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. He is dyslexic and talking about his school life he says he was in a room of children fit “for manual labour, more plumbers and builders’ stuff like that.” McQueen was “put to one side very quickly” because of an eye patch; he had a lazy eye.
9. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
No way! Not the last spot. Save them to his white films. The best thing about ’12 Years A Slave’ is it was Lupita Nyong’o’s debut feature film, and she won for her role, too. The other thing is mentioned above already. This is the only film that McQueen did not write but is based on an 1853 slave memoir by Solomon Northup, and the screenplay is by John Ridley.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free African-American. Two white men tell him he is getting the job of a musician; they throw him into a slave pen. When he says he is free, the white men beat him; it’s 1841! Enter Epps (Michael Fassbender) who is best known for raping people since Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’ (2009). Epps rapes Patsey (Nyong’o) on a constant basis, while his wife (Sarah Paulson) humiliates and abuses her, primarily, out of jealousy. Look out for Alfre Woodard and Quvenzhané Wallis among this stellar cast. The latter plays Northup’s daughter.
This part of American history is essential viewing, but for the Oscars to award this in 2013 and pat themselves on the back for understanding slavery through this film is a wee bit late don’t you think? A good film is a good film! And Nyong’o’s performance is so brilliant that she is more haunting with her still eyes and expressionless face here than in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us‘. In all, I like the film, think it did its job well, but has not aged as well as it could have.
8. WIDOWS (2018)
There is no ageing well for a Viola Davis film; she delivers! McQueen and Gillian Flynn of ‘Gone Girl’ fame wrote the screenplay based on a British television series of the same name by Lynda La Plante broadcasted between 1983 and 1985. Premiering at Toronto 2018, Veronica (Davis) has to compensate for her husband’s debts. The amount is $2,ooo,ooo. The gang threatens her. The others are in a somewhat similar position when they find out that their husbands were all gamblers. They plan a heist. In another window, Amanda (Carrie Coon) does not join them. It becomes a heist thriller, after that; a ride you will not regret.
The cast is as enchanting as is the case with every Mcqueen film. Davis is an actor who can do anything under the sun. She is the gang leader we deserve. When she commands and assigns roles to the women and men around her, you want to follow her and get a car. That she is suffering, in pain, in grief, in trauma, in sadness, and needs help are all internal and nowhere shown externally. She is as stiff as a board on the outside.
Watch/Stream Widows on Amazon Prime
7. HUNGER (2008)
Premiering at Cannes 2008, winning the Caméra d’Or, ‘Hunger’ is a drama that is Steve McQueen’s debut feature. It is about the real-life story of Robert Gerard Sand – more popularly known as Bobby Sands who was the leader of the hunger strike in 1981. Michael Fassbender takes on this role of Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member. McQueen and Enda Walsh, who wrote the screenplay, had a week to talk to former IRA inmates and prison officials.
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Set in The Maze, about 14 km from Belfast, Sands enters by spitting into the prison officer’s face. The officer responds by punching him in the face. Then starts with the protocol: cuts his hair and beard, throw him in the bathtub and scrub him clean. Later, he is thrown into his cell. Sands meets a priest (Liam Cunningham) and discusses the morality of his hunger strike, and then embarks on it. The film is a difficult watch because Sands smears faeces all over the wall one day, and the IRA members urinate under the prison doors. Sands does all of this and more to create a revolution, not a rebellion. If you ask me, it’s a pretty butcher!
6. RED, WHITE, AND BLUE (2020)
McQueen’s ‘Red, White, and Blue’ is a part of the anthology series he created for the BBC but premiered at the NYFF. Written by McQueen and Courttia Newland, it stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan an officer in the London Metropolitan Police. He wants to tackle racism from within. He is already a scientist, but his father gets beaten up by two racist officers, and he signs up to be a police officer.
Within, he faces insults from his colleagues (“Coconut,” “Oreo”), but finds a friend in PC Asif Kamali (Assad Zaman). Boyega is undoubtedly brilliantly.
5. SHAME (2011)
Purely for Carey Mulligan singing ‘New York, New York,’ this psychologically erotic drama deserves to be in the top five. Mulligan takes her time. She sings slowly. The entire scene is five minutes long. The film is not about Mulligan who plays Sissy Sullivan, but about Michael Fassbender who plays Brandon Sullivan. Brandon is a sex addict. Sissy has a borderline personality disorder. Brandon will have sex with anyone. Marianne (Nicole Beharie) is, arguably, one of the interesting ones. Two women, one man, an escort; literally anyone! Fassbender’s body is hungry for something else altogether here.
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Harry Escott’s score makes the whole affair seem classical as if Brandon is playing an erotic Hamlet troubled by his very existence. Glenn Gould’s take on Bach’s music plays as if they were made for this film. Sean Bobbitt shot this film; McQueen and Abi Morgan wrote the film together. In the film’s first few scenes itself, we get a measure of Fassbender’s assets as he urinates, not on the floor this time. Premiering at Venice 2011, where Fassbender won Best Actor, I still cannot shake him or Mulligan off my head and it has been ten years. “We are not bad people,” Sissy tells Bran. True for me and you, too, innit?
4. ALEX WHEATLE (2020)
Alex Wheatle is about a real-life novelist. Here, he is played by two people. An appealing Sheyi Cole plays the young adult while Asad-Shareef Muhammad plays him young. He has asthma. He does not have any parent.
Wheatle gains political awareness, slowly. “I’m from Surrey,” he says, not paying attention to the colour of his skin. He talks, walks, and moves like a Brit. Alastair Siddons collaborated with McQueen on this film to write, while Shabier Kirchner shot the film. The biopic moves to the events of 1981, which affected Wheatle’s life prominently.
“Small axe fall big tree” is the proverb that Bob Marley popularised in the 1973 song ‘Small Axe.’ “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” is the idea behind the naming of the anthology. The anthology tells distinct stories during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s about the life of West Indians immigrants in London.
The five films are also his first shot home. “I needed to have some distance from it to have some maturity and be able to recognise it and understand it,” McQueen says. In addition to, “It’s about my upbringing and my life and what shaped me. What gave me some kind of impression of the world. At the time I didn’t have the strength to see certain things, I didn’t have the distance. It took 11 years.”
3. LOVERS ROCK (2020)
The international film magazine Sight & Sound called ‘Lovers Rock’ the best film of 2020. They asked 104 Brit and international contributors, and 27 people had this film on their list. McQueen and Courttia Newland wrote this film. Shabier Kirchner has shot this film so well that he invites you to the party rather than ask you to witness it. “When I was shooting (the dance scenes), that was for real. I became invited into that situation. It was an honour to be there,” says McQueen.
In addition to, “I’d never experienced that before. It was a spiritual experience. It wasn’t performative. Something happened in that room, and we happened to have a camera there to record it. It was Black people seeing other Black people, feeling what they were feeling, and a Black director, a Black cinematographer, and the fact they could see each other and vibe off each other – and be each other.” These quotes are taken from his interview in Sight & Sound, where I was so happy, he was on the cover in the December issue. He was interviewed by the Black British historian David Olusoga.
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The story is about letting go of daily stresses, though. Like all parties, this one too misfires. A man tries to make advances towards a drunk woman. Another woman has to stop that. The lovers, in the title, though, are Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward). The room is full of people, as you may have gathered from McQueen’s quotes, but the way they have shot the dances (gesticulating hands, holding hands, putting one hand on another’s shoulder, touching hips, moving hips, and dancing feet) only makes you want to dance along.
The real star of this film is the song that makes them groove: Janet Kay’s single ‘Silly Games‘ (1979). There is a point where Kay stops her reggae and the crowd takes over. The entire film could have been just this and the film would have still been on top spot. “No, I’ve got no time / To. Play. Your. Silly Games.” The song is introduced right in the beginning where a group of women are cooking for the house party, and singing the song. I think the song gets played three or four times in the film, but it never stops wooing you. No matter who is singing it, how it is being sung, where the two words are being screeched; it works! I have not stopped listening to it since I watched the film.
2. MANGROVE (2020)
This drama rooted in reality takes place in the real world as well as the courtroom. Written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons, this film also puts a number of people on trial but gives them character and a backstory, and for this reason, we know where they come from and who they are.
In 1968, to begin with, Frank (Shaun Parkes) opens a restaurant called Mangrove. He and two people who help him serve spicy food and nothing else. Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) meanwhile, is racist police who without any proof, thinks Frank is selling drugs in the restaurant. At odd hours, he and his police mates burst through the restaurant door, and break the crockery, in the guise of looking for drugs.
The Black community who finds a home at Mangrove will not have these repeated acts of police violence. So, enter Athelia Jones-LeCointe, a fearless organizer for the Black Panther movement, and the intellectual Darcus Howe (the brilliant and handsome Malachi Kirby) and his wife Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall of ‘Line of Duty’ fame).
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Frank, therefore, is still the central figure; we have three more now. They organise a protest, execute it, and get arrested. While the other five of the infamous Mangrove Nine are:
Rupert Boyce (Duane Facey-Peason),
Rhodan Gordon (Nathaniel Martello-White),
Anthony Carlisle Innis (Darren Braithwaite),
Rothwell Kentish (Richie Campbell), and
Godfrey Millett (Jumayn Hunter)
It is almost humorous to see Alex Jennings play Judge Clark, but his racism is quite evident too. Darcus and Athelia choose to defend themselves, which lead to monologues, and some display of terrific acting chops by the actors who play them. They reject 63 potential jury members before arriving at the final selection, which includes two Black people. McQueen has brought this forgotten period in British history back to memory. The events of Mangrove Nine ought to be remembered not just every Black History Month but in schools.
1. EDUCATION (2020)
Speaking of schools, ‘Education’ is my favourite Steve McQueen film even if it was not among the best ‘Small Axe’ films for many. Based on real-life events of the 1970s, to start with, ‘Education’ tracks a fictional boy called Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy; wonderful, engaging, and has a lot of range) and his family. His family, by the way, includes his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte; brilliant); father, Esmond (distant because the character requires him to be so), and sister, Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence).
Going back to the real-life bit, in a pamphlet called ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System,‘ which went onto become a book, by Bernard Coard (New Beacon Books, May 1971, UK), the writer exposed how Black children were sent from mainstream schools to special schools. Kingsley is a 12-year-old, who does poorly, subsequently, on a culturally biased IQ test, and is sent off to one of the special schools.
Lydia (Josette Simon) and Hazel (Naomi Ackie), incidentally, infiltrate Kingsley’s school. It is a matter of chance that one of them meets Kingsley one-on-one. When Agnes discovers through a network of Black parents and teachers that some of the children there are victims of segregation and bigotry, she is naturally livid but deals with it the best way she knows: by asking her child. Stephanie, by the way, is the first to notice her brother’s trouble in school. Esmond is illiterate; earns his family their bread and butter.
Shout-out to the makeup artist, Edith Morgan, and JoJo Williams, who did makeup and hair, fabulously, for all five films in the anthology. McQueen and Chris Dickens edited the five films while Hannah Spice looked after the set decoration. Gary Davy, who was McQueen’s casting director for ‘Hunger, cast the actors in all five films of the ‘Small Axe’ anthology. Helen Scott did the production design, making us believe that these are period films.
These names are not important for me to list, but for us to remember because they made ‘Education’ the film it is or ‘Lovers Rock’ the best film according to the best international film magazine or ‘Mangrove’ so visceral that you can feel its aftermath till date, a novelist’s life unnecessarily destroyed in ‘Alex Wheatle’, and the image of a person looking at his uniform and wanting to change the system despite facing racism in ‘Red, White, and Blue.’
Coming back to ‘Education’, Sandy’s bespectacled face, somehow, dominates every frame he is in. The slightest of his emotions, feelings, and behaviour: anger, anxiety, bonding, boredom, distraction, frustration, helplessness, inferiority, insecurity, joy, sadness, stargazing, and the way his eyebrows make different shapes gets captured. Shabier Kircher’s camera (he is the cinematographer in all five films of ‘Small Axe’ if I had not mentioned that) lets Sandy’s face have a go all the way. The results are terrific. McQueen attended one of these special schools, too. So, he knows what Kingsey must have felt to some extent. Speaking of stargazing, though, Kingsey seems to be in a different universe half the time. In sum, I think I would like to join him there.