Steve McQueen and the Human Body
How the director of “Widows” politicizes the body in his searing films.
Steve McQueen has made a career out of exploring the human body — its materiality, its limits, its politics — through the tools of cinema. Specifically, across his first three feature-length films Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has explored the way the body has been assigned meaning within certain institutional frameworks. And while an entire book could be written on the role of the body in McQueen’s oeuvre, hopefully, this necessarily superficial analysis will give a sense of one of McQueen’s chief thematic obsessions, which is a large part of what makes him one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.
In Hunger, the titular hunger strike — initiated by Irish Republican prisoners as a means of regaining political status from the British government — doesn’t happen until the last third of the film, but the body is foregrounded from the very outset. The first shot that we see is of a pair of bloody knuckles soaking in sink water; from there, the sights and sounds only get more visceral, comprising brutal beatings and screaming as uncooperative prisoners are bludgeoned by their captors. The actual hunger strike — which focuses on the deteriorating body of prisoner Bobby Sands — is even more harrowing. As Sands, Michael Fassbender gives a performance that evokes Christian Bale’s physical emaciation in The Machinist, but Hunger doesn’t provide a noir mystery narrative to distract us from the horrifying sight of a body consuming itself. For an agonizingly long time, viewers are forced to watch Fassbender’s skin tighten around his skeleton, ulcers rupture his skin, and blood spew from his mouth amidst convulsive vomiting and hacking coughs.
It would be easy to read Hunger as a polemic against the inhuman treatment of Irish Republican prisoners by the British government. But the film isn’t only or even primarily doing just that. The ambitiousness of the film’s vision can be seen most clearly in the fact that there is very little dialogue. People speak, but the chatter is frequently reduced to background noise. More often than not, it is images of bodies that communicate. This tension between body and language comes to the fore in the one stunning exception to the film’s otherwise dearth of dialogue: a 20-minute conversation between Bobby and a priest captured using a single, static medium shot. The priest insists, for both moral and pragmatic reasons, that Bobby should not go through with the hunger strike. Bobby responds by criticizing the man’s “rhetoric” and “dead-end semantics,” saying, “this is real life, not a theological exercise.”
Bobby’s retort is key, because it highlights the film’s central project: to foreground the reality of bodies, the living, breathing, concrete individuals who fight the wars waged by political establishments, who carry and inflict the damages that politicians in office can only ever know from a distance. This thematic interest is why, even though there are many scenes that present British authorities as a menacing mass of indistinguishable figures, the film opens on the hands of a British warden and even introduces the viewer to his daily routine. Bodies exists on both sides of the battlefront, as do faceless organizations, empty discourse, and theory lacking a basis in praxis. The juxtaposition of the film’s wordless corporeality with the profound wordiness and stasis of the scene with the priest accentuates the tension between the concrete and the abstract. Though the film complicates this dichotomy by making this verbose scene both highly visible and filled with genuinely important discussion on the thinking behind political action, the film’s impetus is mainly toward making tangible the reality of the body and its suffering.
The body suffers in a different way in Shame, McQueen’s tale of sex addiction. Starring Fassbender again, the films follows Brandon, a Manhattan office worker, who cycles through masturbation, pornography, and sex but fears emotional intimacy and long-term commitment. Next to the beatings and humiliation suffered by the prisoners in Hunger, too much sex may seem a trifling worry, but what is astute about Shame is the way it frames the issue of sex addiction against a larger sense of failed human connection. What the best parts of Shame do is generate a feeling of oppressive tedium and isolation. Brandon has sex, sleeps, goes to work, masturbates on his break, goes home, watches porn on his laptop while he eats dinner, and, some nights, solicits the services of a call girl. Rinse and repeat. In this routine, we see sex as a bodily process divorced from larger meaning, driving a life-world so insular as to be claustrophobic. Contributing to this implosive self-indulgence is the factor of socioeconomic privilege, which feeds the habit by attenuating other concerns to the point where one could indulge in sex around the clock without prohibitively hurting their livelihood.
Fassbender’s white, privileged, sex-addicted character from Shame makes a de facto comeback in 12 Years a Slave as sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps, except, within the context of the antebellum south, the range of “acceptable” self-indulgence includes exploiting black bodies for whatever the fair-skinned exploiter desires. When Epps rapes his prized slave Patsy, he is using her in ways not so different from how Brandon uses his computer—as a way to get off, a sexual commodity.
The comparison with the mundane object of the computer is especially apt for 12 Years a Slave because the film’s brilliance turns on how it foregrounds both the commodification of black bodies and the chilling extent to which this process was normalized in white American society. On several occasions, McQueen films his black actors standing in a line, immobile like figurines and its diegetic equivalent is made horrifically real in a scene where black men and women stand like statues within the domestic space of a home while a white auctioneer sells them off to buyers. The introduction of such egregious, racialized degradation and violence into the quotidian space of the home suggests the way racism underpins the everyday — a notion that is reemphasized in the much remarked upon scene where everyone on a plantation carries on with their day while a dying black man hangs from a tree.
The way such violence is shown in the film as being simply “part of the scenery” speaks to the terrifying way in which crimes against humanity can be assimilated, sometimes unconsciously, into the fabric of the ordinary. It happened in the 19th century U.S., and, as many observed, it is now happening again stateside, something 12 Years a Slave anticipated in 2013 with the stunning boom shot that tracks from the black protagonist locked up in a cellar to a view of the Capitol building in the distance, signaling the way our country was built on violence against nonwhite bodies. It is a necessarily bleak observation, but McQueen’s oeuvre points to the solution. The body — the raced, gendered, situated, vulnerable, and ecstatically real body — must be our starting point. Only then can humane and meaningful change hope to be made.