Steve McQueen made history at the 86th Annual Academy Awards as the first Black director to win a Best Picture Oscar for “12 Years A Slave.” In an industry where most directors of color are overlooked or marginalized, McQueen is changing the status quo, challenging Hollywood’s perception of black filmmakers and their artistic capabilities.
Born in London, England on October 9, 1969 to parents of Grenadian descent, McQueen had a less than stellar academic beginning. In an interview with The Guardian, McQueen expressed his feeling of anger and isolation when he was separated from the other academically gifted students and placed in a more vocational trade class: “It was horrible. It was disgusting, the system, it was absolutely disgusting. It’s divisive and it was hurtful. It was awful. School was painful because I just think that loads of people, so many beautiful people, didn’t achieve what they could achieve because no one believed in them, or gave them a chance, or invested any time in them.. at 13 years old, you are marked, you are dead, that’s your future.”
Luckily for McQueen his talent for drawing gave him a way out of an oppressive educational system and would study art and design at Chelsea College of Art and Design and fine art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he would find his calling in film.
McQueen’s daring visual short films and installations soon made him the toast of the art world and in 1999 won the highly coveted Turner Prize, presented annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50. In 2008, the talented visionary made his feature directing debut with “Hunger,” about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, winning the Camera D’or (first time director award) at Cannes.
McQueen’s second feature film “Shame” (2011) about a sexually compulsive business executive made waves when the MPAA gave it a NC-17 rating for its sexually explicit scenes. Despite the rating, “Shame” received rave reviews for its bold storytelling and a fearless performance from its star, Michael Fassbender.
McQueen stirred up some controversy when he was invited to “The Hollywood Reporter’s” Directors Roundtable. The outspoken filmmaker, visibly frustrated, took his fellow directors to task for their lack of diversity in casting their own projects: “I’m always astonished by filmmakers who never cast a Black person in the lead. It’s shameful.”
McQueen put his money where his mouth was with his third project, “12 Years A Slave,” that tells the real life story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, who is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. More than just a typical slave drama, “12 Years A Slave” brilliantly depicts the horror of America’s dark past through the eyes of Northrup and a fellow female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
“12 Years A Slave” would go on to win critical praise and racked up numerous film critic circle awards around the U.S. including a staggering 9 Oscar nominations, winning three including Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley.
Now that McQueen has made his mark in Hollywood, what’s next for this outspoken, cinematic provocateur? McQueen is collaborating with hip-hop mogul/producer Russell Simmons on a yet untitled HBO series about a young Black man’s experience navigating New York High Society. He’s also hard at work on a series for the BBC about the lives of black Britons, which follows a group of friends and their families from 1968 to present day.
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