Steve McQueen is a rare kind of director in the modern day film world. With his strong focus on visual clues and story-telling instead of too dense dialogue, which seems to have become the norm, the power of McQueen lies in his images. He makes a powerful statement with every still. Watching three of his most prominent films: Hunger (2008), Shame (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), I’ve noticed a running theme throughout: The apparent juxta-positioning of the natural world vs the industrial themes of his movies.
These three films chosen from McQueen’s oeuvre all deal with complex issues of so-called progression, often at the expense of the protagonists of the film. In Hunger, Irish prisoners are mistreated and refused political status all for the sake of the British finally making progress with its unruly cousin, Ireland. In Shame, sexuality becomes warped, and women woefully objectified, as we witness the industrial progression despite these factors. And in 12 Years a Slave, African slaves are treated with incredible inhumane cruelty all for the sake of cultivating the land and building America.
Knowing that McQueen places a strong emphasis on visual story telling in his films, it can be no accident that he places a heavy emphasis on stills shot from nature. By analysing three of his most well-known films, we can explore this running theme and what it implies for every movie.
Hunger was McQueen’s debut feature, and as far as debuts go, it was an incredible achievement. The story focusses on the hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) that happened in Ireland during 1981 as a result of political tensions between England and Ireland, or “The Troubles”.
McQueen beautifully captured this historical event by using a radically different approach. Instead of telling the story of the institutions involved, he would rather focus on the smaller stories of individuals within the institution. Instead of seeing the police force as a whole, we see the story of a policeman, who needs to soak his hand every morning before work, due to punching prisoners. We see a young man who breaks down when the reality of what he’s doing sets in, even Bobby Sands himself is less portrayed as member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and more of an individual with his own vision.
The juxtaposition of the pastoral vs the industrial in this film first hit me after a particular brutal beating a prisoner went through. After this beating, there was a still of some trees, while Margaret Thatcher’s voice drones on about the situation regarding the prisoners’ need for political status. Margaret Thatcher’s disjointed voice not only proved that she was far removed from this problem, both in empathy and willingness to compromise to find a solution, but the nature still, was the first time I realized that there is more to this film than meets the eye.
The film itself is an instance where politics (a very industrial theme) has failed the people in the system. So it’s no wonder that throughout the film, the prisoners turn to a very primal state of being in order to rebel this system. When Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) first enters his prison cell for the first time, it is completely covered in excrement. In addition to this, his cell mate wears only a blanket and rocks a beard and hairdo to rival even Jesus’s very own.
The excrement covered walls and the dirty prisoners were of course hints to the “No Wash” and “Blanket” protests that prisoners did in that time as well in an attempt to gain political prisoner status. In that time, prisoners also flooded the prison with their own urine. They were caged like animals because they did not agree with political events, and in that time, turned to increasingly primal actions, to revolt.
Then lastly, the hunger strike itself. By going on hunger strike, Bobby Sands denied himself one of the most primary human needs. As we witness his slow death, we see him retreat into a more natural state himself, sinking gradually more into memories of his childhood, which in itself is also linked to the natural world with all its innocence. As every organ fails and shuts down, we see either images of birds or of childhood memories.
Despite the urban jungle landscape of Shame, it still has the shame juxtaposition, albeit in a much more subtle way. Shame follows the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful, quiet, and sex-addicted man, whose life gets upturned when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his apartment for an indefinite stay.
In this film, the pastoral and the industrial is uniquely nestled within the two sexes, especially as we see Brandon have increasing difficulty with his compulsions. If we consider that traditionally, the female is linked with the natural, and the male linked with industrial, the film gains a whole different layer of meaning.
In Shame, women are significantly insignificant. Most women in the film are not even named, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), seems to be named only after her function of being Brandon’s sister. Another way in which women are marginalised in this film, is in the framing, women in the film, are always framed in heavy industrial doorways, windows, or other construction, almost as if trapped by the industrial environment surrounding them.
At the heart of the film, lies Carey Mulligan’s chilling rendition of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, but instead of his booming voice and upbeat optimism of the city that never sleeps, we have a melancholic female voice. The song is completely changed, and almost becomes a glaringly mocking statement.
In this film women are sidelined. But not in the usual way Hollywood sidelines women. It is a commentary about how progression has forgotten the prosperity of women, and how our current system only benefits men. Women are mainly used for their functions, like wife, mother, sister, daughter, and lover. In this particular case, it focuses on women as lovers, but even here they become nameless, disposable beings.
12 Years a Slave has a unique system, because in this film, the natural world is both for and against the protagonist, and the protagonist both oscillates between the natural and industrial. The film tells the story of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapping, being sold into slavery and his terrible years serving as a slave.
The odd tension between the natural and the industrial firstly comes in the form of the slaves themselves, because they become so obviously reduced to being not worth much more than animals. They are captured and kept like animals, they are shown off like prized horses when they need to sold, and probably bear more whippings than the average horse.
When they are sold, they purely become instruments of production. A slave is only worth as much as he/she is able to do for their master, which is well illustrated by Edwin Epps’s (Michael Fassbender) obsessive control of how much cotton each slave picks daily.
Thus, the slaves become more part of the natural world, than their masters, who are exercising control to harvest the land, erect structures, and build America. They are at the same time more natural, yet more industrial because they become instruments of production. Just as the natural world is both vastly beautiful, a refuge for them in their precious off hours, yet co-conspirer in their fate, for if there was no land, there would be no cotton to harvest.
It is this ambiguity in this particular juxtaposition that brings so much beauty to the film. Not that there is any ambiguity in slavery, and the obvious fact that it brought utter harm and pain to generations of black Americans. But the ambiguity surrounding the people that acted in this institution of slavery. Slavery was a proceeding so universally accepted at the time, that very few individuals ever took the time to question it. In 12 Years a Slave, it is obvious that slavery is a painful experience to anyone, involved in it, slave and sometimes master alike. This ambiguity brings more humanity to the nameless institution of slavery. It shows the faces and families behind the whips and the large southern plantations, as well as the faces beneath the scarred backs and shackled hands.