"I don't think it's a thing of colour. I really do not. This is a filmmaker. Look at those longing shots: he's learned from Idrissa Ouedraogo; he's taken from Truffaut; he's seen John Ford. He is interested in telling stories that deal with the extremes and the minutiae of the human condition. This is pure storytelling." CyrilNri
People win because they exceptionally fulfil certain criteria within certain time constraints. British auteur Steve McQueen has done this often. At the time of writing he is a Turner Prize winner, Camera d'Or winner, double Bafta winner, Golden Globe Winner and Oscar nominee among other accolades. He is also black. It is not a case of not seeing this sort of thing every day; it is a case of this is unprecedented. It is a stunning accomplishment, astonishing for a black Briton to achieve it, indeed for any Briton, but Britain - certainly the British media- declines to mention or celebrate what is staring it in the face.
Well, I want to ring those bells.
It bothers me that Steve McQueen interviews on British television sometimes take a bizarre turn: that interviewers will discuss his movies, the prizes, and the acclaim, but rarely in the context of a black Briton's presence being unusual at the level to which Mr McQueen has irresistibly swept. Then suddenly, when the viewer is lulled into the impression that colour isn't an issue for the interviewer, a peculiar non sequitur erupts out of nowhere, "Will there ever be a black British prime minister?" they ask, or, "Why haven't you made a film about the Brixton Riots?" Cack-handed interjections like these reveal that the interviewee's background is indeed an issue for the British media.
Before watching Twelve Years a Slave I decide to Skype the irrepressibly positive Rikki Beadle Blair for some answers as to the appropriate attitude to the momentous nature of Mr McQueen's assent. I am concerned that in wanting to celebrate his visibility that I am backward somehow, old-fashioned perhaps, that I am subscribing to the chip that I have had tattooed to my shoulder. When we speak, Rikki is fresh from wrapping a film he scripted featuring Oscar winner Mo'Nique. Rikki is categorical on McQueen's latest, "It's not good. It's incredible. It's easily going to be remembered as one of the best films of all time." Neither is he restrained on the director's identity, "It is a powerful film for black people coming from a black director. For someone who is part of the genealogy of slavery to be that complex in his thinking takes us all forward." So I ask if it is appropriate to celebrate his visibility. "Everybody has self interest," comes the quick response, "And everybody is attracted to stories that are close to them. It's not ridiculous to embrace self-interest as part of a panorama of interests."
Giles Terera is an actor and filmmaker who suggests that "African descended actors" have to be "canny," recognising this necessary canniness in McQueen. Giles endeavours to preserve the modus operandi of the immigrant acting community of his parents' generation who stayed in touch and supported each other in the fledgling days of the black British experience in British film and theatre. For Giles it remains important to have a sense of community today. He does this by summoning his own generation to 'Lunch!' via Facebook, "You know the drill," reads the blurb, "Bring food and drink and let's eat."
On the afternoon after Twelve Years a Slave wins Best Drama at the Golden Globe awards, a night viewed as disappointing for British film by the British press, we gather at the Prince of Wales Theatre where Giles is currently starring in the Book of Mormon. The invitees visibly convey the community nature of the gathering; it isn't separatist as such, but the majority, as it were, are in a minority, and they don't seem to mind. Elder statesman of British light entertainment, black pioneer on British television, and doctor to be, Lenny Henry is here, as are Paul Medford - inaugural member of Eastenders - and Cyril Nri- Britain's first black police superintendent... at least, that is, on ITV's The Bill. As we assemble for a group photo, instead of the usual "Cheese," Lenny instructs us, "OK everybody, Steve McQueen!" We all agree and chorus, "Ste-e-eve Mcquee-e-n." Snap! Steve's triumphal swagger through the glittering awards season isn't lost on Giles' community gathering.
Still bothered by the fact that the British media doesn't think McQueen's remarkable achievement of note, I ask Lenny if he thinks it appropriate to celebrate the fact that a black Briton has succeeded to this extent. Lenny is unequivocally celebratory. "Of course you should celebrate. He's a shooting star. Everything that Hollywood, even European directors strive for, he already is."
This is my feeling: in the context of Giles' community, Steve has not taken one for the team, as such; he is landing several for the team in rapid succession. Lenny refers to Truffaut and those who, "lionised the likes of John Ford and gave him the title of auteur, but Steve is an actual auteur. He's a proper artist who happens to work in the media of film, and when you've proven yourself in that milieu they can't mess with you." Paul Medford chimes in, "I'm very excited for him as a moviemaker, period. Shame is just one of my favourite movies of all time." However, after some choice words on Downton Abbey's redundancy of historical credibility, he is damning, "Britain has a history of systematically leaving the black experience out of their industry. If we're not exported as part of the great British export how does anybody know that we exist?"
Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with a discussion I had with my best friend Bill, a white gay septuagenarian. When I discuss the issue with him he recalls the first time he saw a black man on the streets of Fulham where he grew up. He pointed the man out to his mother and she admonished him that it was rude to point. He says, "I've never seen it happen. It's about bloody time!"