Sir Steve McQueen: ‘I was told a film with black leads wouldn’t make money’

The directing superstar – the only person to have won both a Turner Prize and an Oscar – speaks to The Big Issue for this week's Letter To My Younger Self

As a teenager my passions were art, art, art, art and art. It started at a young age. I could always draw and it was great to have a talent. As a kid you have dreams and you’re supposed to want to be a footballer or whatever, but at 16 you’re scared of the future. A lot of people that age are unsure but curious. I wasn’t encouraged to do art, but it was something I wanted and needed to do. I’m lucky I followed my instincts because a lot of people were thrown off course. I somehow, miraculously – and I do say miraculously – followed my instincts.

I don’t admire my younger self for following his path. I just think of the other people that could have gone on a similar path but didn’t. I was an exception because of hard-headedness and luck. Or hard-headedness and talent. My hard-headedness and a certain innate talent to draw made that luck.

I came from a situation in which equality wasn’t there and found my way to the other side of the minefield. I look back and see what might have been and what occurred through that journey to get to the other side. I mean, I’m not even there yet, to be honest. It is well documented how people were split into different groups at my school [at 13, McQueen was placed in the third tier of students – seen as destined, he says, for “manual labour”]. To say certain people are better than other people? The whole idea of having the worst teachers given to the students that needed the best teachers? Everything about my career was shaped by my childhood – inequality and the gloominess of unfair society was everywhere.

I never saw any people who looked like me who were artists. When I discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat I was grateful to discover someone like that. But at the time, even he wasn’t taken seriously. I would tell my younger self to follow your instincts and go for it. There’s so much trying to pull you down, even gravity sometimes. You have to be tenacious and forceful if necessary.

I got a constant stream of information, interest and fascination through BBC television and radio. When I was 17 The Singing Detective came on. It was so imaginative and triggered my curiosity about moving images. It was one of the first times something so out there came into the mainstream. Television, especially the BBC, was very important to me.

I learned about London through markets. Every Saturday I’d miss Football Focus and have to go to some market with my mother – always because a friend would tell her where you could buy this or that a bit cheaper. I grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, but would go from West London to East London, North London, South London and into town. I remember the traders down in Forest Gate, and Berwick Street market had lots of interesting tailors. One geezer did celebrities’ suits, so a lot of women bought material from that shop. I won’t say I was my mother’s donkey, but she needed someone to hold the bags. That’s what I was: “Hold the bag, hold it good!” But it was amazing and that is how I got to know London. She was absolutely wonderful, my mum.

I used to think of cinema as somewhere you take girlfriends for a snog. To pay to see a movie rather than watch on TV was weird. My biggest influence of that time was a girlfriend who was into cinema – that is how I discovered movies and it was a revelation. You are seeing people from all over the world falling in love, having breakfast, getting into fights. It was wonderful.

I’m a black man, so how can I not be politically engaged? From day one I was asking questions. People are politicised very early because you are asking certain questions about your existence. I was engaged and I am engaged. You often end up disappointed with politics and politicians. Even people who are apparently on your side are actually about what they can gain personally.

Sometimes you have to ruffle feathers. I think about my art and my movies, and to me it’s all about taking risks. You’ve got to throw yourself a curveball and experiment. I’m not interested in getting comfortable or staying in the same place or everyone agreeing with me. I’m after some idea of what the truth could be. As an artist you want to experiment and move forward – that is how it is. Tomorrow I might want to make something else, like a pair of trousers.

DID YOU KNOW…

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Twelve Years a Slave opened a lot of doors for other filmmakers. Certain movies would not have been made without it – and I know that for a fact because the producers told me. So it was a catalyst for filmmaking. It was me being headstrong again. Everyone was telling me no and I didn’t take any notice, just like before. I was told a movie with black leads wouldn’t make any money internationally, especially one about slavery – and that was by someone supportive of the movie! So that picture changed a lot. I’m very grateful. The picture itself won Best Picture [at the 2014 Academy Awards] and I’m extremely proud of it, but it is what came after that I’m especially proud of. It was a difficult film to make. Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah Paulson – all these people risked a lot.

To commit and learn and grow with someone is the best thing in the world. Falling in love and being in love, and not just when you are young – it is wonderful when you are in love with someone and you are developing as a person, listening as well as learning. I have been very fortunate with that. I would tell my younger self to jump in with two feet. Because to commit is to put yourself into a situation where you’re learning about yourself and someone else – and there’s real development within that.

I grew up in a very working-class situation. My view on life was narrow because of where I came from. The people I had relationships with came from elsewhere. So to talk to people from other vantage points in life opened my eyes and was hugely important. That is why I say the commitment of actually engaging with someone is what gave me my liberty, actually. I learned about myself through other people.

My younger self wouldn’t give a damn about my knighthood [McQueen was made a Sir earlier this year]. The country I come from gave me this high award – and that’s great. But it doesn’t mean anything unless you can actually use it. What am I going to do with it? I’m already doing it.

This new show at Tate Modern, Year 3, the Grenfell film – all this stuff feels like a homecoming. [McQueen was given permission by relatives of the victims to film inside Grenfell Tower from a helicopter before it was covered up.] And we have shot Small Axe for the BBC and are editing now. This is where I come from. The only person I am representing, to a certain extent, is me. But we are also part of a community. The only reason I am sitting here today is because of other people. So it is not a pressure to represent lots of people’s stories – it’s a privilege. The response to Year 3 has been overwhelming and I have been very moved by it. It is a portrait of what London looks like now and the future of London. Everyone has a link to the artwork. Even if people don’t see a relative, they see themselves as a child.

The only thing the British offered to build in Jamaica was a prison. They didn’t offer to build a university, they offered to build a prison. The irony of that! At certain points one has to talk about compensation. So let’s be moral, let’s be correct. People have to be compensated for slave labour that was never paid for. I won’t get too much into the deportation flights but this stuff just has to stop. Windrush has to stop.

I don’t need to whisper anything in my younger self’s ear. I didn’t need those whispers. I did it. What I would have liked and which I didn’t get – and which I had to get from myself – was a sense that you have the authority to do what you want. A lot of people were spooked into a position where they thought certain things weren’t for them. I wasn’t scared off so easily.

Steve McQueen is on until May 11 at Tate Modern. Year 3 runs until May 3 at Tate Britain. Small Axe is on BBC One later this year