Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” was released almost a century after D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” the first film ever to be screened at the White House. McQueen’s film, however, was not shown at the U.S. President’s official residence. The British director spoke Saturday about this issue while at an in-conversation event at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
“It was just after that situation with Skip Gates,” said McQueen, referring to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates by Sergeant James Crowley, a suspected case of racial profiling that stirred great controversy for then-President Barack Obama, who was alleged to have taken sides after publicly stating the local police department had acted “stupidly.” “So, at that time, everything Obama was doing was being scrutinized,” continued the director, “and that was the theory of why ‘12 Years a Slave’ was not projected — 99 years after ‘The Birth of a Nation’ — at the White House.”
The filmmaker added: “But then again, ‘12 Years a Slave’ wouldn’t have been made without Obama being president, that’s for sure. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have gotten the money. I think the fact that people wanted to illustrate that particular time of history when there was a black president made the movie possible.”
McQueen is in Rotterdam to showcase his most recent artwork, “Sunshine State,” his first since “Year 3” at Tate Britain in 2019. Originally commissioned by IFFR to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the piece was delayed by three years due to the pandemic but has finally found its way to the Dutch city for this year’s edition of the festival. The audiovisual piece is being exhibited at the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen museum.
“Just before my dad died, he told me this story,” said the director about the inspiration behind the piece. Brought from the West Indies to work as an orange picker in Florida, McQueen’s dad had a harrowing brush with death after two of his co-workers confronted a white bar owner who refused to serve the three black men a drink. The confrontation led to the murder of the two men, with McQueen’s dad narrowly escaping the same fate.
“Sunshine State” juxtaposes an audio recording of McQueen recounting this story with images of Alan Crosland’s 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer” — the first-ever feature-length film with synchronized dialogue — and footage of the sun recorded by NASA. “He never told me about it before, so he had been carrying that around with him for over 50 years. He thought that he could tell me that at that time. So he was carrying it around with him all those years, the thought that he shouldn’t have been here or the possibility of him not being here. That was a trauma he was carrying every day.”
McQueen spoke of his relationship with his father. “I think my father would have preferred me being a plumber, a carpenter or a mechanic, because these professions are kind of essential and can’t be taken away from you. The art world is predominantly managed by white people, so, therefore, they are the ones who can judge if you’re good or not, they are the ones who will pay you if you’re good or not. So to be outside of that sort of categorization, outside of that evaluation, that’s safe.”
McQueen had wanted to work with “The Jazz Singer” for over 20 years, but struggled to obtain the rights from Warner Brothers. According to the filmmaker, this was because he “didn’t have the juice” yet, and, once his work became more prominent, he went straight to one of the heads of the studio and acquired permission to work with the footage, now in the public domain. “The Jazz Singer” is now widely recognized as racist due to its use of blackface, the harmful nature of this depiction central to “Sunshine State,” but there is no blackface in the artwork.
McQueen commented on the racial politics of the artwork. “I gave [Al Jolson’s character Jack Robin] computer-generated gloves because he doesn’t have gloves on in the actual performance. And it’s interesting, the whole idea of those white gloves and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, who are basically minstrels. It is interesting how that tradition is within the public culture. What can you say? It’s mocking.”
When asked about the personal tone of the artwork, the director stated that “Sunshine State” is a personal work, but it’s universal. “It’s happening to so many people. Unfortunately, it’s happened in recent days,” said McQueen, referring to the murder of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. “So, again, my story is very personal in some ways, but it’s not at all.”