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Trajectory of Endurance: The Cinema of Steve McQueen|Dipankar Sarkar

In a span of six years, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has made three films whose cinematic grammar equates with a style that primarily concerns with his propensity to construct a dramatic structure in a contrarian fashion. The films that he made had dealt with themes that have explored-

  1. The physical extremity and political extremism of a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army as prisoners at Belfast’s Prison Maze (Hunger, 2008).

  2. The insatiable secret sexual addiction of a sleek young executive in New York shuts him off from genuine intimacy (Shame, 2011)

  3. The yearning for the liberty of a free African-American violinist drugged tricked and sold into the infernal world of slavery. (12 Years a Slave, 2013)

McQueen has proved himself adroit at stunningly mapping the trait milieus of his films. With an acute astuteness, McQueen had worked with variegated screenplays, written by three different writers. His first full-length feature film Hunger was co-written with playwright Enda Walsh. Shame was co-written with British television series writer Abi Morgan. His third film 12 Years a Slave (2013) is an adaptation based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup. John Ridley, a veteran screenplay writer from Hollywood, has written the adapted screenplay, where McQueen doesn’t share a writer’s credit.

In terms of storytelling, we do not find the conventional plot lines in the narrative’s rendering. The leitmotifs used in his films are chronicles of- suffering, captivity, exploitation and the craving for self-authorization. The brilliance of his narration lies in its frankness to confront the brutal as well as emotion reality face to face, devoid of any polemics or allegory. His narrative strategy forces audiences to confront disparate subjects-matters such as the weakening and dying body is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, subsistence in a culture that nourishes emotional isolation as well as the dehumanizing brutality of slavery.

His cinematic style demonstrates, to all intents and purposes, an idiosyncratic approach that disentangles the emotional truth of his thematic oeuvre. He has a pedantic grasp over the mise-en-scene of his films, which is a mix of immaculate composition and artful design, seething with meaning. The dexterity of his visual style evolves through the associational logic of juxtaposing the images accorded with a structural coherence, which is imbued within the realm of an exoteric structure.

As a scaffold to begin to approach the director, I will attempt to work out a few characteristics of Steve McQueen’s film and the experience of watching it.

Potentiality of imagery

Steve McQueen’s films are about human survival in states of extremity. His character’s discomforts are always self-contained. They are never shared with an intimate or explored through dialogues. We never see inside their minds. Information depicted is like showing what they look like is what matters. McQueen’s background as a visual artist has foresighted his fierce concentration on the image, with a resolute attention to what things looked like, moment-by-moment. The modus operandi of rooting his films more in feeling than in dialogues can be accentuated by enumerating some of the following scenes from his three films.

Hunger, 2008

At the beginning of the film we observe the prison warden, Raymond prepares for his day at work by washing, getting dressed and eating breakfast- in an utterly composed as well as strained manner. But the moment he passes his driveway and looks underneath his vehicle for bombs, the viewer is immediately drawn to the perception that trepidation has walked into the disintegrated society of that time.

The splattering of the excrement on the prison walls by the prisoners as a representation of their rebellion. A well as the spiral image drawn with the feces on the cell wall symbolizes that there is no way out of this complicated situation.

A prisoner playing with an insect through the grating and a bit later he tries to catch snow through it. All these moments expresses the stark contrast between his liberty and the simulated environment of his confinement.

As the riot squad mercilessly hit the prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison, a young soldier from the riot police seems to be deeply shocked with such repulsive callousness. He cannot stand this violence and he is simply sobbing aside. The powerful image in this sequence is the split frame, showing the violence continuing on the left side and the young officer crying on the right.

As Bobby Sands is lying on the bed of the hospital and lingeringly stares at the ceiling above him, a feather floats in the foreground expressing the fragility as well as the tedious wait for the embrace of death. And the near final image of a flock of birds symbolizes his soul’s last flight.

Shame, 2011

The opening visuals of the film where Brandon is lying in the bed staring up, muffled pad of footsteps crossing overhead, the murmur of an answer phone is audible off-screen. All these insipid gestures assemble together to cumulatively emphasize the cold and forlorn existence of Brandon.

Sissy accepts David’s advances and has sex with him in her brother’s bedroom. It catalyzes an inarticulate frustration in Brandon. To escape, he pulls on his tracksuit and jog for four blocks. The streets of New York to alleviate himself from all the negative emotions that are surfacing and his disdain for what he perceives to be her sister’s weakness and emotional vulnerability.

When Brandon attempts a dinner date with his co-worker Marianne, he hesitates not knowing whether or not to go inside the restaurant, but can see her through the window sitting at the table waiting for him. In that moment we realize how hard it is for him to really take that step towards real intimacy. Next, when Brandon cannot manage a casual sexual encounter with Marine, he calls an escort service. It further depicts how Brandon has no way of communicating except sex, and can’t have sex with someone he genuinely adores.

12 Years a Slave, 2013

An early image in the film consists of a group of slaves in work clothes, standing in a field and staring warily at the camera, with an unflinching gaze. Their weary faces convey the agony of men robbed of freedom and the renunciation of despair.

Solomon shares a quick, unsolicited moment with a female slave, who reaches for him sexually with a hunger that stems as much from lust as it does from loneliness. Then we cut to a scene of Solomon and his wife up North going about their everyday lives. And afterward, we can see shame and confusion playing across his face. Even a furtive stab at intimacy in this environment of slavery translates as deadening and abusive.

Solomon’s neck is in a noose, and he is hanging from a tree in the plantation yard. His feet are barely touching the muddy ground below. He struggles to keep himself upright. In time, other slaves enter the yard to perform daily tasks and children begin to play nearby. The scene continues for a decent length of time. The scene is a physical illustration, which not only particularly depicts Solomon’s determination to survive, but also slavery of the body and mind, at the same time.

The juice from the blackberries traversing the surface of the plate implies Solomon’s realization of how he can utilize the fluid as an inky device. But when Solomon’s intentions have come to light, he sadly burns the letter, which he has written using the blackberry juice. The embers of the flame suggest the pulverization of Solomon’s sought-after hope for freedom that he had covertly hatched.

Persistence of the physique

The relationship between bodies and physical spaces has been a key component in McQueen’s visual structure. The physical representation of the body as a leitmotif denotes the body as a tool which can be used to protest, and that even in desperation the body can be a weapon with which to fight back. It acquires the shapes of a shield of endurance, where the soul’s humanity, as well as dignity, is tested to the limit.

In Hunger, the bodies of the prisoners, and those of their loved ones become transmitting devices. They devise ingenious methods of secreting messages written on cigarette papers. Kisses are used to smuggle tiny messages. A baby being used as a smuggler. Visitors conceal contraband in orifices, which are then hidden again in orifices, passed back along to their loved ones in a nonstop underground chain.

As part of their no-wash protest, the prisoners refuse to shave their hair and beards. Their wild appearances serve as expressions of dissent, a refusal to pretend that life inside the prison is at all civilized. Prison officers forcibly and violently remove the prisoners from their cells and beat them before pinning them down to cut their long hair and beards.

The guards chop Booby Sands hair off and forcefully slam him into a bathtub. The prison warden scrubs him brutally by an industrial broom. Riot guards beat him as he is led to and from the tub and finally slammed into his cell like an animal.

And while we may cringe at the images, we also find ourselves empathizing thereby intensifying our viewing experience. It whirls us into the hostile environment of the film space. Even the deterioration of Bobby Sands’ body is shown in great detail. We witness the human flesh eroding before our eyes. The weakening and dying body is the ultimate symbol of rebellion.

Whereas in Shame Brandon’s uncontrollable need of sexual satisfaction, picking up women, paying for prostitutes, masturbating in the shower at home and in the bathroom at work. Having sex in apartments, in hotel rooms, outdoors against a wall, time and again. These private moments of joyless sex serve as a compulsion to climax in which Brandon’s emotional connection plays no part. It’s the fixation of a tortured individual aghast at the self-destructiveness of his addiction but unable to change his actions or escape the shame they cause. He is enduring a sexual function that has long since stopped giving him any pleasure and is self-abuse in the most profound way.

In contrast, the stout bodies of the slaves in 12 Years a Slave becomes a capricious property of their masters, where harsh beatings and pitiless lynching are administered to depict the viscerally affecting everyday realities and brutalities of slave life.

After Solomon have been kidnapped, his captor comes in, taunts him, calls him a nigger and beats him with a wooden paddle until it splits in two and his flesh starts to swell with welts and bruises. Later in the film, Solomon, and his fellow travelers are stripped naked and display in a genteel parlor, where they are sold by an auctioneer, who doesn’t have an iota of mercy in separating the children from their mother.

Epps savagely flogs Patsey to such a brutal extent that her flesh gets lacerated and flayed.

All these images induce a claustrophobic space where the institution of slavery has reduced to the level of a stripped-down morality.

Confinement of the tattered soul

The most discernible premise in all the three films of Steve McQueen is incarceration- in terms of both physical and psychological existence.

In Hunger, the prisoners are denied of their political status in Belfast’s Maze Prison and treated as common criminals. The prisoners rebel against their new status by rejecting prison uniforms. They wrap their naked bodies in blankets, refusing to bathe or shave, smearing their cell walls with their own excrement.

Bobby Sands doesn’t put his foot down when confronted with Father Dominic Moran discussing the morality of a hunger strike. Neither side moves to accommodate the other’s point of view. Both the participants in the argument are captive of their own principles and principle by itself allows us to exercise many options in the defense of that principle.

Brandon existence is defined by his sexual addiction on the one hand and his need for control on the other in Shame. The arrival of Sissy, inevitably, brings Brandon’s carefully controlled libidinal economy into crisis.  He loves no one, is attracted to no one, is driven to find occasions for orgasm — whether alone or in company hardly seems to matter. Apart from his sex addiction, practically everything about Brandon is generic and depersonalized. Towards the end of the film, he moves somewhat in the direction of being able to care for another human being. For him, that involves being able to care for himself, despite the truth that he feels unworthy to be known.

Solomon Northup – an educated free man from Saratoga, New York, undergoes a nightmare of involuntary servitude after being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. During his confinement sublimate himself to survive. His intelligence is dangerous as literate slaves weren’t trusted. He bears the whippings with silence. He pretends to be an unqualified who can neither read nor write. Because of Solomon’s servile attitude, his sadist master Epps hands the whip to Solomon, making him complicit in the torture of Patsy. The aftermath of this heinous act yields such a deep impact in Solomon’s soul that he methodically breaks his cherished violin into small bits – silencing the instrument with a hushed display of violence.

Constructing reality head-on

McQueen doesn’t grant his viewer the opportunity to behave as a passive medium while mentally recording the events of his films in their mind. He rather pertains them to be directly involved in the process of viewing. One cannot overlook the self-conscious realistic approach of his films where visceral intensity becomes the pivotal component of the viewing experiences and McQueen purposefully forces his viewers to sensitize and not merely unreceptive watch his work. His cinema is thus as much about the response of the viewer as it is for the actual viewing.

In 12 Year a Slave, when Patsey is inhumanely whipped McQueen shows not only her graphically flayed flesh but also the faces of her torturers, each tortured themselves by their actions, for reasons we understand, perhaps with some shocking empathy. The camera, without a cut, spins around to show the obscene violence of the whipping. By opting for single circular shot the director depicts the unblinking immersion into a historical tragedy.

Somehow Sissy and Brandon in Shame are always catching each other naked. They have an uncomfortably long discussion in the bathroom while Sissy is completely undressed, and making no attempt to cover her. Sissy accidentally walks in on Brandon masturbating in his bathroom. He physically attacks her and accuses her of spying on him. But there is no incestuous fondness existing between the siblings. So McQueen allows his viewer to design their own speculation about the siblings’ background to run alongside the film.

On the other hand, Hunger which is a drama of political resistance and yet the film makes no historical analysis of the troubles in Northern Ireland. The film does not really set out to explain why Sands and his comrades did what they did. Instead, McQueen shows how they did it, and in what circumstances. He is not interested in the history behind his story.

He simply wants the viewer to experience the experience.

Steve McQueen’s films have been multiple award winners in various film festivals as well as mainstream award ceremonies. His debut feature film has won the coveted Camera d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2008, along with the BAFTA in 2009. His second film Shame was awarded the FIPRESCI at the Venice film festival in 2011. But his third film 12 Years a Slave won three academy awards in 2014, thereby excelling his reputation as a serious and important filmmaker in the history of cinema. I hope that Steve McQueen’s newly elated prominence aids his body of work to be the context of discourse amongst cinephiles, cineaste, and filmmakers across the world.


  1. Bazin, André.An Aesthetic of Reality,” in What Is Cinema? Vol. 2, Translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967

  2. Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kristin.Film Art: An Introduction.NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008.

  3. Dancyger, Ken.The Director’s Idea. U.K : Elsevier, 2006.

  4. Pramaggiore, Maria, and Wallis, Tom.Film: A Critical Introduction.Boston: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2008.

(An edited version of the article has appeared in Lensight, a Quarterly Journal of Film & Media, Published by Film & Television Institute of India, 2013)

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He’s currently working as an independent film and video editor.

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