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Before 12 Years a Slave: How Steve McQueen’s visual-artist past influences his Oscar-winning filmmaking

Director Steve McQueen poses in the press room with the award for best picture for "12 Years a Slave" during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

"I could never make American movies – they like happy endings," said Steve McQueen, in a 2012 interview with The Guardian. Two years later, the British director achieved Hollywood's ultimate happy ending: a best picture Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave – the first time that prize has gone to any visual artist turned movie director.

McQueen was an acclaimed gallery artist before he ever got near a film set. He won the Turner Prize in 1999, received an OBE in 2002, and was named Britain's entry at the 2009 Venice Biennale a month after Hunger, his first feature, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

You have to work to see the link between Julian Schnabel's exuberant smashed-plate paintings and his delicate film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was nominated for four Oscars in 2008. It's easier to find the continuity between Steve McQueen's video installations and his three feature films. Some of his long, fixed-camera shots in Hunger would not look out of place as museum installations. Thematically, his videos and films share a common focus on people trapped by politics, personal circumstance and history. Hunger is based on a fatal hunger strike by imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands, Shame shows a man's life unravelling through sex addiction, and 12 Years a Slave recounts Solomon Northup's real-life ordeal as a victim of kidnapping and slavery.

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As a boy with dyslexia, McQueen literally drew his way out of a class for under-achievers, in a school that later admitted that its treatment of pupils like him had been swayed by institutional racism. Art school, and film studies at Goldsmiths College, gave him the tools to make video installations that merged the personal with the political in ways that could be starkly agonistic or playful or both – as the following selection shows.

Bear (1993): McQueen's first short silent video, made while he was still a student, shows the artist and another man circling each other, naked. They spar and wrestle at times, laugh and embrace at others, as if acting out the way we all improvise our way out of solitude.

Deadpan (1997): In Steamboat Bill, Jr., a toppling house façade falls harmlessly over Buster Keaton, thanks to a well-placed, open window. McQueen reshoots and repeats the scene from numerous angles and speeds, with himself in Keaton's place. As the sight-gag becomes a serial ordeal, McQueen's deadpan expression begins to look "less like anticipation or secret-keeping and more like forbearance," as the LA Times's Christopher Hawthorne remarked.

Drumroll (1998): This 22-minute, three-screen installation shows images shot by cameras inside an empty oil drum rumbling down a Manhattan street, while the artist says "excuse me, excuse me" to pedestrians in the way. The mad swirl of tumbling images says a lot about our confused thinking about oil, and what we'll put up with to get it.

Queen and Country (2007): McQueen went to Iraq in 2003 as an official British war artist. Unable to shoot the kind of video he wanted, he made this gallery installation of 160 sheets of facsimile postage stamps, each showing the face of a fallen British soldier. Like Hunger, McQueen's stamps honour individual struggles while implying disillusionment with lethal national projects.

Gravesend (2007): Scenes of Congolese miners digging ore deep underground alternate with shots from a high-tech processing plant. The common element is coltan, an expensive conductive mineral used in digital electronics. McQueen brings together the grubby, war-wracked land of mineral riches and the pristine cellphone in your pocket.

Static (2009): A helicopter clatters and wheels around the Statue of Liberty in this 7-minute video installation, filming the postcard monument from unexplored angles. Are the close-up images of rust stains and grime a reminder that freedom is hard work, or that time wears against all things?

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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