When Lenny Henry met Steve McQueen: what is the future for black actors on screen?

The comedian talks to Oscar-winning film-maker McQueen about race in the TV and film industry, and whether the 12 Years a Slave director feels his win changed attitudes both on screen and off camera

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Lenny Henry has been tracing the history of British black actors on stage and screen in documentary series Raising the Bar for BBC Radio 4.

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In the final episode, Henry meets Steve McQueen, the first black director to win a best picture Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave. This is an edited version of their forthright conversation.

Lenny Henry On 2 March 2014, film history was made. For the first time ever, the Academy Award for best picture was awarded to a [film made by a] black director. He was British, and his name was Steve McQueen. The film was called 12 Years a Slave. How did it come about?

Steve McQueen I remember thinking, “I want to make a movie about slavery, and I’m going to do some research?’ It was a slow process and then my wife, a historian, said, “Well why don’t you look into true stories of slavery?” And then she found this book called 12 Years a Slave.

What was so funny was that when I opened the book, the story was like an idea that I had, which was of a free man in the north of Africa who gets kidnapped into slavery, and that was the story of Solomon Northup – 12 Years a Slave.

LH This real-life narrative of an African-American man who was sold into brutal slavery in 1841 made almost $200 million at the box office, and turned you into an international movie legend. And that was to go with your already distinguished art-house film career, and national distinction of winning the celebrated Turner Prize for art!

It must seem a world away from your childhood in Ealing [west London]. I wonder what life felt like for the young Steve…

SM Well, it’s funny, I remember on the TV show Hill Street Blues the policemen did that roll call – what they’re going to do each day. At the end of the roll call the guy goes, “Be careful out there?’ Well, I had that every day from my mother when I left home. So the police had their roll call and the young black boys had theirs.

LH What was the danger?

SM Things weren’t so secure, possibilities could happen, so people just wanted to make sure.

LH You were picked on in the street on the way to school?

SM Well, no, not in that sense. I think by that time with black people there was a sense of “We’re here” but it was a case of opportunity, a case of perception, a case of [getting] a good, fair education, a case of [having] teachers who cared. And I was in a situation where white, working-class people and black people were sidelined for sure.

Looking back it makes me a bit angry. I went back to my school to hand out achievement awards in 2000 and it was great to hear the headmaster say, “When you were at school, it was institutionally racist.” I’ll tell you what, Stephen Lawrence didn’t die for nothing. Unfortunately, someone has to die for people to accept certain things that happen. But that was my reality and a lot of people’s reality and a lot of beautiful people’s lives were ruined because of that.

Steve McQueen at the 2014 Oscars

LH These days, on screen, black British characters proliferate. Every new crime series -even the venerable Lewis – seems to have a black senior detective in a main role.

You’ve now been commissioned to develop a major BBC drama series. It’s got a big, sweeping timescale starting in the 1960s and follows a group of friends in the Notting Hill district of London. And, needless to say, this isn’t Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill. The drama opens at the time of the MP Enoch Powell’s notorious pronouncements, known ever since as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

SM At the same time as that speech was being made in 1968, a West Indian social club was being built called the Mangrove in west London, and I love that comparison. Someone’s talking about the problem of immigration and at the same time people are putting down roots.

I don’t just want to talk about the obvious troubles, I want to talk about sound systems and what a Saturday night was like back then. My aunt would climb down the drainpipe to go to a blues night, and climb back up because the next day she had to go to church. The clothes, girls, boys, the humour – that’s what I want to portray, that’s what I want to see on screen. I want to see a history that has sort of disappeared.

Enoch Powell in 1969

I’ll tell you a funny story, actually. I remember being on the Tube one morning, years ago, and looking up and seeing Enoch Powell, this old, dishevelled chap opposite me. And there was this African lady sitting next to him in these lovely bright colours. She had this little baby that kept crawling up her shoulder to try to touch Enoch Powell. I thought, “Damn, if I had a camera that would have been incredible.”

LH So we’re making progress on screen, but behind the camera the black presence is less obviously visible. I reckon if anything we’re going backwards.

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SM When I look behind me I don’t see anyone else. When I shot Hunger [McQueen’s 2008 film about the hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland] I didn’t see any black people on any set; I saw one Asian guy, possibly. We need people to have the opportunity. We need to fix this. It’s kind of crazy, and it’s this separation that drives me up the bloody wall.

These are edited extracts from the final episode of Raising the Bar, which was broadcast at 1.45pm on Friday 20 November