Steve McQueen: The Television Auteur

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Across his anthology series "Small Axe" and three-part documentary "Uprising," McQueen presents a hybrid model of television storytelling.

By Johannes Black

For many, the entrance of Steve McQueen into television was expected—his mercurial career has encompassed video-art installations, music videos, shorts and award-winning feature films. Before the critical success of Small Axe (2020) and Uprising (2021), twin anthology series that navigate the lives and passions of London’s Caribbean and West Indian communities, McQueen had already directed the pilot episode of HBO’s TV series Codes of Conduct (2016, since axed), and his fourth feature, Widows (2018), smartly transplanted Lynda La Plante’s 1980s mini-drama into present-day Chicago.

McQueen is one of many working directors—David Fincher, Jane Campion, and Andrea Arnold, of recent years—whose careers have migrated from cinema to small-screen television. Switch between your streaming channels, and the volume of director-driven programs is extensive—and growing. In the past, the director-led format of television was far less common and expected, with the groundbreaking prestige series of Rainer Fassbinder (Berlin AlexanderplatzEight Hours Don’t Make a Day), Krzysztof Kieślowski (Dekalog), and David Lynch (Twin Peaks) proving anomalies to mainstream TV. McQueen is now another name in a growing list of directors, writers and producers whose ideas and creative freedoms are more readily accommodated by the television market, with content-providers BBC and Amazon Studios laying down new opportunities for Black British storytelling.

First premiering at the Cannes and London Film Festivals, and later arriving on BBC platforms, the Small Axe anthology treads a thin line between “cinema” and “television,” welcoming the separate elements that both offer. Small Axe has been promoted and applauded as anthology television and as a sequence of stand-alone films—no single definition is shared by critics or awards bodies.

McQueen has openly dismissed this complication:

“I don’t care! That’s for critics to talk about. […] I think these kind of conversations are about the limits of people’s imagination of what can be what. If the situation is not pushed then it becomes stagnant.”1

However, this is no old conversation. The hybrid storytelling of Small Axe deliberately plays to cinema and living-room audiences. Take, in particular, the opening episode “Mangrove” which contrasts electric, visceral combat with scenes of closeted courtroom drama. The medium of this episode is purposely ill-defined: “Mangrove” uses a 2.35.1 widescreen format—normally reserved for cinema releases—and runs over 120 minutes, despite its primary distribution on daytime television. With “Lovers Rock” (the second episode) and “Alex Wheatle” (the fourth), McQueen once again brushes away the conventions of primetime drama by finely intertwining art with history, sidling between genres and aesthetic choices.“Mangrove,” especially, demonstrates a louder, more liberated McQueen—one whose creative and political freedoms have further to tread, and more time to settle, charging his television with even greater import. Comparably, his three-part docuseries Uprising—investigating the deaths of 13 young Black people in the 439 New Cross house fire—complicates its medium by including the subtitle: “A Steve McQueen Film.” To view these series is to engage with McQueen’s hybrid televisual aesthetic, and consider how we, the audience, might receive and consume the conventions of his art.

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