Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Steve McQueen

This conversation was recorded on 26th October 2020. Speakers: Paul Gilroy, SPRC Director // Steve McQueen, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and artist; creator and director of Small Axe

Paul Gilroy: Good morning everybody, it's Paul Gilroy here, Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL. My guest this morning needs no introduction, so I won't try and introduce him, it is Steve McQueen; award-winning artist, film director, household name and general catalyst for the positive. Steve, thank you so much, I know you really are incredibly busy and it's just a joy to be able to talk to you about what's going on around us and about the new work that you've got in process, particularly this amazing medley of films, Small Axe, which is beginning in a week or so. I thought one place to begin would be just to say I've always thought racism doesn't let Black people have a history, it keeps us in the present always; we're always in the present. So, we're denied a history, and we're not allowed to think with reference to a future. So, it just seems to me that to make this amazing collection of historical material, and to pitch it into the situation that we're in, is a way of not just restoring the history but of orienting people towards a possible future. So, I just wondered what you thought about that history.
Steve McQueen: Thanks for the introduction, Paul, first of all. For me it was always about planting myself in a situation where I had an idea of who I was, where I was and where I wanted to go - and I say 'I' meaning 'we'. It was very difficult sometimes growing up in the UK as a Black child - as a Black, male, young child - and how I am now, to get some kind of bearings of what the future holds. But also, everything was always unstable because no one thought that you had any roots here or any stability here; I mean roots as far as stability; so, you could be pushed, and you could be toppled over. So, for me, Small Axe was about shoring up the foundations of who we are and where we came from and what we contributed to this country on so many levels and influenced it on so many levels. So, that's what Small Axe for me was about.
Paul: Yeah, I feel that, and I think that- I haven't seen all of the five films, but the ones I've seen certainly do that but they go beyond saying simply in some sense we belong to this place, in some sense you have to recognise that this place has no future without recognising our belonging here...
Steve: Absolutely.
Paul: ...it pushed through to something even further than that, which is about saying actually you don't have to fear that belonging; that in admitting us into, if you like, the nation's official portrait of itself, you're not going to lose anything; you don't have to fear that admission, you don't have to fear the entry ticket. It's belated, and it's been so much connected to all the cruel, horrible things that are in the background with Windrush and all of that, but you really do not have to fear letting us into that portrait.
Steve: Yeah. It's been a long time in the making; this has been 11 years. So, immediately after Hunger I knew this was what I want to do. There was sort of a rough plan, but at the end of the day it was one of those situations of having to get the platform to do it; and I knew always it would have to be the BBC, for example, because for me these weren't local stories, these were national stories; and at the same time I knew these were movies, feature films, because these stories needed this plinth, they needed that sort of canvas that only cinema could do. And the fact of having that platform and having that canvas, is also allowing us to talk about what you say about the portrait or the picture that we're in, that we are part of this story and we've changed things in a way that can never be reversed. And it's amazing. And I think in some ways, for me it wasn't just about acknowledging it, it was about celebrating it; and that's it.
Paul: It's interesting you put it like that because I think the first film, Mangrove, is very much a film of protest, but it's also a film about the nature of justice; and as it comes first before the others it makes justice absolutely fundamental. And our movement in this country - which has been in part a movement to belong and to be seen to belong - is also movement for justice; and so I think it's very interesting that you made that one first, and in a way it's a recognisable political story that speaks very directly to the context of Black Lives Matter, speaks very directly to the context of the Windrush scandal and the horrors that continue. I know we all know the Windrush things been going on for 20-30 years, and we all know people who've been victims of it over that time; and it's not just about what Theresa May did, although what she did was awful, it's not just about that because Labour and Conservative- all of them, they've all been doing it, and they've all been doing it for the longest time. But, now when some of that starts to come to light, it creates a new setting for that demand for justice; and I think that's really fundamental that justice is absolutely nailed on in the biggest, biggest letters and the loudest voice from the beginning of the whole medley of films.
Steve: Justice. Morality. Consciousness. I mean, it's in order to put one foot in front of the other when you go out on the road, exit your house, how are you going to survive? Any and everybody. So the fact that the first film's about the Mangrove Nine, and the whole idea of what happened to them and how they triumphed with their own voices; taking on the establishment with their own voices; using the tools of the establishment but with their own voices was beautiful. That's what happens with music, that's what happens in every kind of aspect of creative life. And I think the whole idea of something which is Black, and the whole idea of something which is beautiful as far as talking about justice and freedom, can reverberate throughout the land, it can influence any and everybody. It's a case of that sort of moral stance, that justice as you talk about, and how it can be reverberated throughout the land, and every level - education, employment, everything - can be affected by that; but not just for a few, but for all. That's what it's about. And how much that we affected that, and we've changed that; we're not just making noise about a small part of the situation, our noise is reverberating throughout the land, throughout the bloodstream of the country and beyond, and beyond, and beyond.
Paul: I wonder about that because of course a number of the people - the families of the Mangrove people - some of the people themselves are still around, are still alive; and that must give you a very difficult, complicated task. All of the films in a way seem to have a relationship to reality; to real people, to real places, to real elements in a longer history of life in Britain, in Europe. I wonder what that's like, particularly in the case of Mangrove because you had to present the material, I'm sure, to the people who were part of it. How did they react to watching a film of it?
Steve: Well, interestingly my father was a friend of one of the Mangrove Nine, and he was a very close friend of his, and he used to come around my house all the time; I just used to be lying on the floor watching TV while these two guys would be chatting, because you couldn't join the conversation because it's adults talking or whatever. But I didn't know who he was; I didn't know about the Mangrove Nine until maybe 15 years ago. My father used to go to the back a yard; my father used to go to The Mangrove. My relatives are from Grenada and Trinidad, so it was integrated within, we were living in Shepherd Bush before my family moved out into the suburbs into Ealing. So, I kind of knew people that I didn't even know were involved. And that sort of negotiation, of course, it's been difficult at certain points because you're dealing with people who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder for years, for decades, and had no sort of help; and the children of those people going through that. So, there was a lot of trauma, absolutely still is. And you're never going to get it 100% right for anyone, but for the majority it's been an amazing experience. And I think those conversations with some of the relatives now are still happening, because I think to put it on the big screen as we did and giving these stories a victory that in some ways that they but they never really had because it was some parts of the community who saw them as champions and heroes, but not all community; and these aren't just local heroes, these are national heroes. And that's what I wanted to do, and I think for the majority of relatives and the next-of-kin it's been a great experience. And now there's the conversation we're having to have, just because we're dealing with trauma, and we're dealing with the children of; and it's heavy, it's heavy; it's not an easy, easy thing at all.
Paul: No, absolutely. How that passes from one generation to another is really a strong undercurrent in all the material that I've seen; that sense of intergenerational responsibility, intergenerational conversation. And of course that's very much gendered actually, certainly in Red, White and Blue; it's a curiously intimate and interesting study of how a Black father and a Black son speak to one another, and acquire the capacity to communicate across some of the difficult things and anxieties and pressure- the pressure that they're under in that life at that time. So, I think it's really important for people to appreciate how much the generational responsibilities cut into all of these films. And you now yourself, I imagine, also feel this; that there are things we have to do to speak to people who are younger than ourselves. You say you didn't know about it till 15 years ago; they won't know about it until they see what you've put in front of them. So, there's that aspect too. I know it's really important to what you've done, otherwise you wouldn't have done it that way, because I know how focused on details you are; so I think the idea that all of those details, all of those minutiae; the recovery of that history, of that experience so carefully so that every little detail corresponds to how people lived and what they saw and what they thought and all of that is very, very powerful in the material too. All of the details - I don't mean the cars and all that - I'm talking about the details of interaction, the details of space; the space in which the family find themselves in Red, White and Blue is a beautiful reconstruction of a certain kind of West Indian life; that must have been done with love - it was done lovingly, because it comes off as lovingly.
Steve: I think the details of even how you speak to your parents, where you sit at the table, grace; all kinds of stuff I remember, which was part of the form of communication; and again, it's kind of weird, I don't be analytical about it in a way because it's a part of me, but when you take yourself out of it and you look at it, and you look at it- 'how? why? oh, this will be like this'. And then, again, it's eating at the dinner table; that was the only time that you could actually have necessarily a conversation, a proper conversation, because everyone would be going to work, they were coming back from work, people would be tired, there wasn't a moment; the only time you could actually have face time, at least that I remember with my parents, was at the dinner table or when we did a board game, or things like that; that was the only time. So, it was always about activity and possibly getting something in and having that dialogue. Little things like that. And food of course, and it's kind of crazy, but everything throughout was about the food.
Paul: And about the board game; I mean, I didn't think I would live to see an image of a Black family playing Scrabble, that's part of the recovery of the kind of cultural complexity of their life and formation. I love that sequence in the film, and I think lots of people will recognise that as an image that cuts against all the sort of- you say trauma- that idea that Black families are somehow diseased; that there's somehow something wrong with them; that their kinship's not right; that they have too much of this and too little of that; too much Victorian this, too much violent that; too much tension.
Steve: I had so much love in my family, so much love, so much love. And that love always came out through protection. And that's the thing about Red, White and Blue with Leroy Logan's father - similar to mine, and others, and I imagine a lot of people identify with it - because my father would be my father because he didn't want to see me hurt; because he had been the brunt of so much things. Imagine people going and coming at 9 to 5, and what they had to go through to come home with their wages to give to the children, and to be fearful of what could happen to them, because they were taking the brunt of it. So, I knew that my father was very much- when I said I wanted to go to art school, my father was like 'art school? Ummm, okay...'; he always told me to get a trade, he wanted me to have something in my arsenal that no one could ever take away from me because he knew the white establishment could take that away from me to say 'okay, you're not worthy of this, you're not deserving of this' and take it away from me. But if you had a trade, and you could do something, that that couldn't be taken away from you. And that was his way of just trying to protect me.
Paul: That dynamic of protection you handle in Red, White and Blue- I don't think this is a spoiler now, so I hope it's a safe thing to say; there's a moment obviously after Leroy's father has been brutally and cruelly assaulted by- after the assault - let's give the minimum away - after the assault Leroy goes to see him in hospital and there's a kind of very poignant very intense encounter between the two of them, where that dynamic of protection is reversed generationally. So, instead of the parent seeking to protect the child, you have the child erupting with the desire to protect the parent.
Steve: That's the main thing; that's great the way you've picked up on that. And of course the father being quite embarrassed about it in a way; there's a certain way he looks at him with his face all swollen and distorted, and his son looking at him; and then what triggers the son is the reaction of his mother, not necessarily the father, because he has to hold up in front of the father, but when he looked at his mother that's when he breaks down. And that's when things slightly shift as far as the weight is concerned; not the fact that he takes over but he realises his responsibility, the son now knows what his responsibility is now that his father had before, that he has to take on the baton, he has to move on; he's the one that has to take on whatever the father was holding on before.
Paul: Yeah, and just that sense of seeing your parent as a victim, seeing your parent as vulnerable. That's a shock, and that shock does a lot of work in the plumping of that beautiful film. Well, I won't say any more about that, but there are lots of things that struck me about it. The other thing I guess I want to mention- I know I said I wasn't going to- is how it shows - and there are elements of this in the first film too - it shows that Black people can have ordinary lives. It's not sort of deviant, it's not only trauma; it's an ordinary life. And, to me, the power of seeing it in an ordinary way, in a house where people treat each other as well as they can, they work for each other to realise each other's possibilities to have an ordinary life and do ordinary things, and have joy and laughter and all of that, that comes across very strongly in the way that that interior life of that family is captured. Yeah, they have conflicts, but they sort them out, they work them out; there's a moment where you think it's going to tear, and we all know those moments happen; but there's also repair that goes on; there's care there, there's love there, there's joy there. It makes it kind of ordinary; people have problems, they work through their problems. That's not something that you see all that often in cinematic representation of Black family life.
Steve: No, and it's sort of what happens to us on every single day of our lives; but yes, you're quite right, it's not projected or given that attention and other things are. What's interesting about that family is that it's all about trying to achieve more; it's all about achievement, it's all about 'come on, we can do this; come on, we can work through this; come on, let's do this'. It goes that way for the family, but it also goes well up to the Metropolitan Police when Leroy joins it, and he thinks he can progress in the same way- yes, I imagine there will be mistakes along the way, but he can actually proceed and progress- but it's not that kind of environment; it's unforgiving for him as a Black man. His development was stunted because of racism within the Metropolitan Police; and that's the thing about it, you see the trial and tribulations of the family and how it comes together and how wonderful they are at getting him to that point, and then he goes to another situation where that environment is not welcoming at all, and that's because of who he is as a person. And I think from '83-84, that's where we are right now. This is not where the series stops actually; the last piece of the series of films is Education, but as far as I'm concerned, as progress is concerned in this country and the UK, is this is where it stops as far as how one tries to integrate to make change- not necessarily integrate, but to try and sort of change it within- that's exactly what Leroy says, he's trying to change the organisation from within to make it better, and that's been stumped. I've got to add one thing because a very important element in this, in goodness, is John Boyega. And what happened to John during the Black Lives Matter demonstration in London was hugely integrated with Red, White and Blue, because while we were making this this is what happened; and I know for a fact, and he's said it himself, that the process of making Red, White and Blue and what happened when he spoke at the demonstration, and afterwards when we did the pick-ups, was very im-pivotable in what was going on. So, art in some ways was imitating life for sure. I mean, we could talk about Star Wars and John; him being the golden boy as they say in Red, White and Blue, and him being the golden boy in Star Wars, but his development being stunted within the process, within that series of films; and it was art imitating life, and therefore he was playing that.
Paul: Yeah, I suppose the implicit suggestion that being a member of the Metropolitan Police is a bit like being a Star Trooper in the Evil Empire.
Steve: Well, you said it!
Paul: Can we just speak briefly now about the Lovers Rock film? It moved me greatly, it moved me greatly, because I found its sensuous loving appreciation of the work that music does, and has done, and goes on doing in the lives of people is a very rare thing. And actually, the sort of sensuous part of it wasn't just the sound, because the sound of the music seems to kind of saturate the visual presentation of the film in some very rare way. And I found myself being able to smell what was being cooked in that kitchen; it all came together into the body in that way; it's a very rare thing. I don't know how you managed to do that. Is that something you want to share?
Steve: It's the sensual. The only way I can explain it is through music, because what you do is you set the tempo; you write the harmony, the melody, or whatever it is, and people can improvise within that. Because these are amazing actors, first and foremost, so they know the limitations of what they could do within the sort of time frame of 1980, and the language, how they move, and even how they speak to each other; and we had an amazing choreographer. So we had this situation going on, and I think when Black people were in the room with other young Black people, and seeing who was in charge, it definitely fuelled something; and to feel comfortable and have some kind of plan of what we were going to do, where they can move within that frame; that was the starting point. And again, it's love; I know it's kind of weird to say that, but it's love that you can appreciate with partners. And how one used to dance; the tradition in some ways has not been deemed as important, but I remember when people used to touch the lady's elbow and then work their way down the forearm to the wrist, to the hand, and hoping that she would grasp, because if she didn't grasp that would mean she's not into it. But it was about touching the elbow first, getting the attention, pulling the hand all the way down the forearm to the wrist and hoping she'll clasp; if she clasped, then there's a dance. And again, the sensuality of it and the movement and then the music. I love that tune Turn Out the Light by The Investigators, "tell me what you think about me, baby"; like some guy asking 'I hope you like me', it's just so vulnerable and beautiful, and it was where we were at making that picture. It was all about that kind of possibility, and it was beautiful, it was marvellous. Sometimes as an artist, as a filmmaker, you're invited; you get to a point where you are invited and you're just there; because in that environment that I set up there, that would have happened without a camera anyway. That would have happened without a camera. At some point we were just invited, and the whole idea of what happened afterwards was the a cappella bit of the film when we were singing Silly Games, I mean that just happened; and Dennis Bovell, who produced that picture, is in it; he plays someone who's in that picture, the old guy in that. It just occurred, emerged; sometimes you've just got to hold on and that's about it.
Paul: Obviously that genre of music is really important, but in that party they're also playing other music. The other magical part of it was when Kunta Kinte comes on, because that has got a very particular kind of sound for people who don't know dub music; it's got that very sort of insistent- it's almost like a kind of prototype of some sort of avant-garde electronic thing.
Steve: Totally. For me it's like a dog whistle going off. Working with Courttia Newland on the music and the script, I heard this tune and I was like 'this is it'; because I knew I wanted dub. Okay, look at the ritual; at the beginning of the blues we have the girls dancing to Chic or Kung Fu Fighting, the guys leaning on the wall checking out the ladies - it's almost like a ritual, isn't it? And then of course turning into lovers, and then at the end, when the dub comes on, it just takes off. It's futuristic, there's nothing about the present and everything about the future and possibilities; it's about possibilities and the future and something else. These guys, these women, they work five days a week for the blues; the racism, the nonsense that they put up with in the week to get there on a Saturday night to let off; and it's all about the future, it's never about the present. It's never about the present, and it's never about the past; it's always about the future. So that's why I just let off, that's when I let off because it's all about not being present but being somewhere else. And like you said to me - and we talked about this before briefly - you used the word church; and I think maybe church is the only time in the week where Black people come together on a Sunday as such, and basically elevate themselves to another place; and that's always about the future. They elevate themselves within church to somewhere else, and I think that's it.
Paul: It's very powerful. I'm sure you're going to get a very big reaction to that - I mean, you will to all of it - but to that in particular because there's never been anything remotely like that.
Steve: My aunt was so emotional, because the story is about my aunt; long ago my uncle used to leave the back door open for her to go and come back on a Saturday night, because my grandmother wouldn't let her out. And my grandmother saw it at the NFT and she was so emotional about it, she was sobbing in tears; and it was about remembering that moment - I can't speak for her, I shouldn't - but I think it was that whole idea of- it's almost like the top of your head would lift off; it was something else.
Paul: It's transcendent, but also, it's interesting you say that her reaction was tears. I'd seen a rough version of the Mangrove film, and I found when I saw the final version I was weeping, and I hadn't expected to be hit so hard given that I was roughly familiar with what you'd done.
Steve: And also, what you know. But that's what art can do, that's what art can do. I mean, if anyone knows anything about Mangrove Nine it's you, but it's one of those things where art takes it to another situation. It's not the formal aspects in the book, maybe it's the emotional; it's the space, the smell, the real jeopardy that people are under, the threat. But also, the fact that none of the Mangrove Nine men are alive today, not one of them. The only people left are Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese; and that's it. None of the men are alive to this day; and that's the thing, and I've said it before, they were not seen as national heroes but with art, with film, we can make them that; absolutely, we can make them that.
Paul: It's interesting you mention Barbara Beese, because of course one of the other things you've done, and it's very interesting, is you've taken the photographs that were made at the time of the demonstrations and you've brought them to life in a way that is incredibly vivid and extraordinary. Because again, you think you know what happened and you've got an idea from looking at those old black and white photographs people like Horace Ové took of that demonstration where she has a pig's head; and here it is. I don't know how to account for- I don't have a vocabulary available for how you've brought it to life in a way that's so vivid. I suppose it's partly the actors, it's partly as you said before these are great actors who are given an opportunity to present the full repertoire of their skill.
Steve: But also, they were playing themselves; they were playing themselves. The actress who played Barbara Beese had a conversation with her about Darcus Jr and the fact that she knew that - she was in care, Barbara - and the fact that if they lost the case that possibly her child, her son, would have to be in care; and that hit her apparently when that conversation happened. So, they were playing themselves, more than maybe ever before because they didn't often get the chance to play their roots. And I think that was very important. Alastair Siddons co-writing the script with me, and his commitment to the detail of the trial; at that point there were no transcripts of the trial, so Alastair found - I think it was the Kensington Post or Kensington Gazette - there was a journalist there every day who had transcribed the whole of the case in newspapers, so all of that was virtually verbatim. And of course, there's a transition from the first half to the second half when we get into the formal aspect. For me, Mangrove - this is interesting, one of the producers said this - he said, it feels like a western, and I thought 'yeah, you're absolutely right, it is a western!'; some guy just wanting to open a little saloon, maybe he was a bad guy before, was on the wrong side of the tracks before, and he just wants to go straight with his saloon, but of course that sheriff who knew him before is always hassling him; and then things just take off. So, it is a kind of fable.
Paul: PC Pulley should get a mention here because that's a great performance from him. The actor, Sam Spruell, gives a great performance because he doesn't overplay it; and his bewilderment- he should get some sort of prize for his bewilderment- I don't want to give things away, but I loved his bewilderment in that moment of the film. And I think we might try at UCL to give some belated recognition to Altheia Jones-LeCointe who was a UCL student; I'd like to think that when people have her history and memory restored to them, that they will want to honour her for the role she played in bringing a better, deeper, richer conception of justice in the life of...
Steve: ...in the whole of the entire UK. She changed history, for sure. For sure she changed history, Darcus Howe changed history; all of those guys changed history; there's not an if, but or maybe about it. But the fact of the matter is that during people like Darcus's and other people's lives there wasn't that real recognition; it was some guy on TV possibly, or you saw him after the uprising in 2011 and you saw him on TV as an old guy. Again, a lot of people didn't actually know him and know what he did, and others like him did, and for me that's so important right now. And it's really strange of course, making these films at the time of George Floyd and Corona - timing or whatever it is - you know, I'd rather George Floyd be alive today, but he didn't die in vain that's for sure. So, the timing is a bit weird in a way, but we have to sort of take advantage of course, somehow.
Paul: And we don't know what the effects of all this will be.
Steve: And it could be worse, it could be worse, it could be worse.
Paul: Steve, thank you very, very much. I really appreciate you making the time, I know you're under pressure.
Steve: And I've got to say thank you to you. For all the listeners out there, I've known Paul since I was 19 years old, when I first met him at Goldsmiths University. And I used to knock on his door, myself and a guy called Desmond used to knock on his door, and he was always welcoming, and he was always open to talking to me as a 19-year-old. Could you imagine? You imagine someone like that would just swot the person away and say, 'come back tomorrow'. He opened his door, and I used to sit down and just talk to him. So, if there's ever a lesson in that, it's just to listen to young people, because actually I do think that was very important for me, Paul, that you opened that door to me when I was 19 years old and I could have this conversation with you because it was just very important to have someone listen. And not necessarily I was making perfect sense at all, but the fact that I had someone like you listening to me is so important. I think if anyone out there is in the vicinity of younger people, and they're looking for something, just to give them a bit of time is going to help them tremendously. So, Paul, again, weird me turning the tables on you like this, but thank you sir, thank you so much, thank you. Take care. Thank you.
Paul: Bye-bye, and thanks.