[Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers for the films Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave.]
Steve McQueen is an interesting figure in modern cinema, partially because he has spent most of his career making short subjects, but also because he is one of the few black directors to have gained enough traction in the U.K. and U.S. to have made a filmography of any appreciable size. And that’s with only three feature films under his belt. He’s a critically acclaimed director who has little problem with taking his time between projects, but when we are graced with one of his feature films we catch a glimpse of the man’s relationship with the history of oppression in both his English home and in tradition of slavery that shackled his ancestors.
McQueen’s first film was 2008’s Hunger, an experiential prison film that explores the last days of IRA leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) as he went on hunger strike for the sake of fellow prisoners who were being held without political status. However, Sands doesn’t actually make an appearance until the latter half of the film. McQueen instead spends the establishing scenes with both prisoners and guards, showing us the deplorable shit-covered living conditions and torture of the former while demonstrating the comfortable, guilt-ridden lives of the latter.
The important takeaway from Hunger—besides the tragedy of Sands’ death and the question of whether his strike constituted torture by not conceding to his demands—is that there is an explicit humanity in even the monsters who perpetuate atrocities. The police and prison officials of that time and place weren’t caricaturistic monsters sprung from whole cloth, but were people with fears and a sense of duty to what they thought was a higher calling. Some of them even felt guilt for what they were doing. But what’s important to note is that McQueen still dispassionately shows the atrocities committed by these guards in order to remind us that these people are still monsters, and it’s necessary to remember that just because someone has a life and family outside of their atrocities, the pain they cause to others is just as real and should be judged accordingly.
We see this theme continued in a more personal and plotted way through 2011’s Shame, which makes us empathize with a poor example of humanity even as he continues to destroy his and his sister’s lives. Brandon (Fassbender, again) is a sex addict working a high-powered business job in New York City, and he manages to keep his predilections separate from his work life. That is until one day when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) forcibly comes to stay with him after a bad break-up with her boyfriend, and he not only has to navigate feeding his addiction with his sister around, but also has to resist his latent sexual attraction to her.
What’s interesting about McQueen’s transition to a character examination rather than a broad social commentary is that he still walks that line of depicting the deplorable aspects of humanity without losing sight of that humanity. Brandon engages in self-abusing and emotionally vindictive behavior that, by the end of the film, drives his sister to attempt suicide, but we’re also made to understand that he is dealing with compulsions that he has never received help for and has carefully learned to control over the course of his life. Brandon’s actions aren’t justified by his addiction, but they make him understandable and the film closes with the implicit question of whether or not Brandon will or even can change in order to save himself, his sister, and their relationship. He’s a monster, but we understand why he’s a monster, so even as we empathize with him, we do not condone his behavior.
But then, of course, we come to the elephant in the room of McQueen’s career: 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner that is perhaps the most broadly accessible of his films, yet surprisingly holds more in common with his first feature film than with its immediate predecessor. Adapted from the 19th century memoirs of Solomon Northrup, the film follows a dozen years in the life of a free American Northern black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery. He is subjected to vicious beatings and witnesses the degradation and humiliation of many other black slaves, whether from a more benevolent master (Benedict Cumberbatch) or a vicious tyrant (Fassbender, once more) who is prone to irrational outbursts at the prodding of his bored and jealous wife (Sarah Paulson).
What makes 12 Years A Slave an immediately more accessible film is that it has a definite perspective from a protagonist we’re meant to root for in the irrefutably evil institution of slavery. But even when we take into account that we have a conventional perspective for the audience to empathize with, what Northrup observes in his white masters is that they are monstrous examples of humanity that still retain the characteristics of people. His first master is a decent enough man held in the trappings of an economic system that he doesn’t know how to extricate himself from, but that doesn’t excuse his role as a slave-owner who employs a brute as his overseer. Northrup’s second master is a drunk and an adulterer who rapes his slave women, but he’s also easily manipulated and is a victim of a marriage that he doesn’t seem to want any part of. Even his wife is motivated out of spite for feeling trapped in her circumstances, but the thing the film never, ever lets you forget is that even as these people become real to you and show glimmers of relatability, they are still perpetrating immense acts of violent inhumanity.
So really, even more than McQueen’s stylistic choices—which veer toward minimalist dialogue and long, meditative shots—his films are about evil and the people who perpetrate evil acts. And the emphasis here is that they are people, flawed and as human as any of us, and that’s the scariest thing of all. We walk among monsters every day, and just because they seem like us we don’t cower in fear of them. Maybe that’s because there is the potential for each of us to be a monster. After all, if it only takes something as simple as a chain of command or an economic construct to destroy one another, then maybe the line between human and monster is finer than we’d like to believe.