Steve McQueen calls out for more diversity during an interview at the Rome Film Fest 2020 where he picked up a Life Award

by Francesca Lombardo – Oscar winning director of 12 Years of Slaves, Steve McQueen has been honoured with a Life Award at the 15th Edition of the Rome Film Fest. The British Film-maker has presented his film trilogy titled Small Axes (Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue) which is set to premiere on 15 November, 2020 on BBC One in the UK and on 20 November, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video.

In the working for 11 years, Steve McQueen talks again about racism which is still strong back then and now. With the trilogy he wants to recapture the world where he grew up by telling the stories of three different families of the the Caribbean community in London, putting the focus on their struggle people have had to integrate in a society where racism was still strong and rampant.

His focus is particularly on  black people framed by the Police and the struggle to deal with such injustice. At the press conference of the Rome Film Fest, the Director has been also very vocal about the very lack of diversity behind the camera, particularly in the UK and is calling for the industry to change and move on from its elitism.

When the idea of this film came about and why did you decide to give it the form of a trilogy?

I have started working on this project in 2011. Initially, I wanted to do a film on one family only over 60 years, but we spoke to hundreds of hundreds of people and we compiled all these stories and each one was so rich and so complex, so interesting that we didn’t want to limit to one family only. How was shocked to see how many stories of abuse that had not been told? I was desperate to make Small Axes. I grew up in a Caribbean family, I grew up in that part of London where the Caribbean community settled and had to face racism. To some extent, this is also the story of my family and my life. 

Is the main character in Small Axes, still alive and he collaborated with you for this film?

Yes, the main character is still alive and he was collaborating with us. He was on the set with his best friend Leroy and I remember him saying when he was watching the scene where Leroy was speaking to young people. He watched the scene on the monitor he said he felt like a whole on his chest. The scene so cruelly brought it back to the people he was trying to communicate with. The struggle he had to face as a black Policeman as people didn’t want to communicate with him because he was a black policeman. Leroy’s way to fight the system was to integrate and infiltrate in the system by becoming a Policeman. And he did a lot of great things. He helped create the black Police Federation, but unfortunately, towards of the end of his career as a policeman, he was prosecuted for not paying an £80 hotel bill which sparked an investigation that lasted years and years, where around 100,000 pounds were spent and eventually he not found guilty. He was targeted by the Police as a black policeman as he was a black man. This is the real black people put up with every day for years for all those years in the UK and it’s still an issue.

Do you think something has changed in the way Hollywood treats racial minority on the screen?

Well, I think a lot of things have changed. I made the movie 12 years of the slave which generated a lot of money and had two black leads. That was very eye-opening in the sense that the film industry has realised that American black history films can generate a lot of money as we did back then. I’d say that Hollywood is seeing it as a product that can make money. To some extent industry, people understand that this is also another way of making money and something successful. In reality, I don’t know how much progress in the industry has been made. A film about a race which is a product that can make money is not the thermometer of the industry opening up to racial minority. The sign that the is truly industry is opening up is when the black working class is included behind the screen. I am more interested in the black person as seen cameramen, a makeup artist, a costumer designer as an editor which is not happening yet as the film industry remains an exclusively elitist industry.

As a film-maker who has with Small Axes put on the screen of the struggle of the Caribbean community faced since their arrival to the UK: how did the Wind rush generation scandal affect the way you told the story?

I wanted to make this film before all these first generations that came over, passed away. Like my parents, and that was a motivation for getting things done. A lot of them are also dead. So I wanted to allow those first-generation people to see their story to see them. And yes, the Wind rush generation just added more fuel for the finishing line.

What is your take on the black movement that becomes finally so visible after the killing of George Floyd?

It was a moment of great collective frustration that came out. What is interesting to me, the level of awareness about this subject but this is because of the worldwide pandemic. The black movement has been very vocal for years but none one seemed to pay much attention. The killing of Also George Floyd was so gruesome and millions of people witness that. Millions of people have been marching against The Police framing black people, but we had black people been brutally killed by the Police for years.

Why do you think now the Black movement had such a momento?

It is because of the pandemic. People were forced to reflect and face their mortality and this resonated with everyone much more, but the framing and the brutality of the police and gruesome death of black people have been going on for a long time.

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