‘Can we start this interview by saying that it’s the morning after Virgil Abloh has passed away. I think that’s significant and important. He was 41 years old,’ says Sir Steve McQueen sombrely. ‘That man was a trailblazer in fashion. And this is a very sad morning.’
It is both opportune and cruelly coincidental that I am speaking with the 50-year-old director and artist today. We’re discussing Embarrassed, his two-minute public health film, in association with Male Cancer Awareness Campaign (MCAC) and supported by British brand Belstaff; a short created to raise awareness of prostate cancer among Black men. Abloh, creator of Off-White and artistic director at Louis Vuitton, died after a private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma. Although it’s a different kind of cancer, this tragedy underlines the urgency of addressing the health inequalities that continue to cut short Black men’s lives.
‘The first time I met Virgil was seven years ago, when he was a senior assistant of Kanye [West],’ recalls McQueen. ‘Within seven years, to be fronting Louis Vuitton, and all the other things he did, is pretty astonishing. If there’s anything we can take from his life, it’s that he wasn’t about tomorrow, he was about today.’
Abloh was the kind of Black senior public figure who didn’t exist for McQueen when he was growing up in Ealing. ‘There was no one like him in fashion. He was a fashion designer, a furniture designer, a DJ.’ That multi-disciplinary nature is what makes both Abloh and McQueen such powerful creative Black forces. McQueen’s art won him the Turner Prize in 1999, while his movie 12 Years a Slave (2013) nabbed the Academy Award for best picture (he was the first Black film-maker to take home that prize), a Golden Globe and a Bafta. Last year his lauded TV drama anthology Small Axe, which told stories from London’s West Indian communities spanning the 1960s to the 1980s, won five Baftas and he was knighted. The word polymath gets bandied around a lot but McQueen is the real deal.
If there’s anything we can take from his life, it’s that he wasn’t about tomorrow, he was about today
Embarrassed is a public health campaign, although one that features the actors Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Micheal Ward. In it, they speak gravely about the rates of prostate cancer diagnosis and mortality among Black men. McQueen says that when the actors were invited to take part, they threw themselves into the project. They inform us that one in four Black men will be diagnosed with the disease, and one in 12 Black men will die from it. This means they are twice as likely to be both diagnosed with, and die from prostate cancer than their white male counterparts.
The early death of his father was the driving force behind McQueen’s involvement. ‘My father died of prostate cancer 15 years ago. He was 67. And to find out that if he had been diagnosed earlier, he would have been more likely to survive, I mean…’ His words begin to fragment before he composes himself. ‘There’s a 98 per cent success rate if you catch it early. So it’s upsetting that we didn’t have this knowledge, although the knowledge was out there. But it’s not deemed as important enough to be given a platform where the broader public know about it. So that’s why, for me, this was a sort of passion project.’ The affirmations which underlie the project are that Black men deserve to grow old. We deserve to live, age, retire and rest. If the illnesses which cut our lives short remain unaddressed, then too many Black men will continue to die.
The death of Black fathers is poignant for both of us. I tell him of my own dad who passed away due to cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, at the age of only 49. Similarly, early detection may have saved his life. McQueen is comforting. I ask him how he felt upon learning that his father’s death could have been avoided. ‘I just scratched my head,’ he sighs. ‘Because there’s thousands of men dying [from prostate cancer] every year in the UK. And obviously, a very high percentage of them will be Black men. So the fact that this isn’t commonplace, that PSA tests [a blood test that helps detect the disease] are not totally mandatory for Black men and men in general, is astonishing.’
In the film, the actors speak frankly of the need to begin conversations at home, encouraging our brothers, fathers and uncles to test for prostate cancer, and not to feel ashamed or embarrassed to do so. It’s framed as a familial obligation and a duty of care Black men have towards each other. McQueen believes that there is a ‘machismo’ among Black men that prevents them from testing until it’s too late. ‘It’s about being tough and rough and whatnot,’ he says, and urges, ‘Just make an appointment and see your doctor, don’t be embarrassed. Of course there is the whole idea of how you test the prostate, the fear of a finger put up your backside. There are some people who find it odd. But these are medical tests which are ultimately for your well-being.’
While Embarrassed focuses on community duty and care, McQueen has not lost sight of the structural contexts that breed mistrust between Black communities and medical institutions, as well as underfunded health services that often mean Black Britons are deprioritised. While to McQueen assuaging the ‘fear factor’ related to clinical visits is urgent, change is not the burden of Black communities alone. He sees clinicians’ negligence towards Black patients as institutional racism: ‘When you do the maths and ask, how come this [prostate cancer rates among Black men] isn’t common knowledge? Why isn’t my GP asking me for my mandatory PSA test? It’s to do with racism — people don’t care about Black men. So we’re forced to put upon ourselves to make that happen. We have to look after our health and our father’s, brother’s and uncle’s health, because the Government won’t do it — obviously.’
The erosion of trust between Black communities and the state is something McQueen believes has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. He refers to the health secretary’s ordered review into the racial biases of medical devices, as research has suggested that oximeters may overstate oxygen levels in the blood of patients from ethnic minorities — a factor that has potentially been consequential for the disproportionate rates of Covid mortality among Black populations. McQueen has no doubt that without these medical biases, ‘thousands of lives could have been saved, meaning that thousands of Black people died because of negligence, ignorance and not caring’.
McQueen, who lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch director/producer wife Bianca Stigter and their two children, describes Embarrassed as a ‘beginning’ of his work into health inequalities. Over the course of our conversation he becomes bouncier and more hopeful in tone. When Embarrassed was launched at Tate Britain, McQueen was invigorated by what he saw: ‘a sea of beautiful, Black, sharp, sexy looking people — artists, film-makers, musicians, comedians, actors, politicians’. The event was attended by actor Ncuti Gatwa, Dawn Butler MP, Tinie Tempah and tailor Ozwald Boateng, among others. McQueen has, for a long time, found himself the only Black person in many artistic spaces, so his eyes brighten when he thinks of how much has changed. The event was, he says, ‘celebratory, because in some ways, it was about us taking control of the situation and changing our lives’.
He speaks of the life-changing experience of a close relative being diagnosed with an illness, details of which he keeps private. ‘That was interesting because what it made me do was look at myself in a way and realise that we’re not here forever. And that set me free. I was so devastated by his illness but it propelled me to realise that I’ve got nothing to lose.’ We discuss the distinctions between privacy and silence. Both Abloh and the actor Chadwick Boseman, who died last year from colon cancer, had kept those battles private. While these men were fully entitled not to disclose their health problems, I wonder what McQueen thinks about how to raise awareness of illness while dignifying the right to privacy. ‘It’s about the issue, not the personality,’ he says. ‘There’s too much about personality right now, and not enough about what we’re up against. I imagine both Virgil and Chadwick’s decisions were made very carefully. I imagine it’s one of those things when you’ve got a career, and people are looking at you and thinking you’re not well… It’s enough that we’re Black men and have to deal with that. But in order to shield themselves from that and proceed with the artistic journey, I fully respect their choice of privacy.’
McQueen is clear that Embarrassed is purely about public information, that it is not art. That may be the case but it’s compelled by the same sense of duty to tackle public silence as was the Small Axe series or his recent three-part TV documentary, Uprising, which looked back at the events and consequences of the 1981 New Cross house fire in which 13 young Black people died. The duty manifests not only through what’s on screen, but who is involved — he speaks of ensuring Black creatives are always placed backstage and behind the cameras, and creating apprenticeship opportunities. It’s this dedication to Black communities that makes McQueen such a national treasure.
I wrap up by asking what currently excites him the most? He replies, ‘You, Black journalists.’ I blush. ‘No, seriously. What’s so wonderful is now there are Black writers having their own voices. Beforehand I didn’t get to speak to anyone Black. But here I’m conversing with someone who understands me, and who I understand, and that’s a different level of conversation compared to speaking to someone who is white. Often you would have to battle rather than just get on to the next phase of thought or thinking, there was always explanation rather than investigation and exploration. It was limiting.’ I jokingly ask what he thinks white people do or think when they read articles like this, which are specifically about Blackness. He chuckles briefly but then points out that everyone gains from any discussion of health. ‘They’re going to be thinking, “What’s going on here?” And also be shocked. And also inform themselves and inform their friends,’ he says. ‘And that, too, is important — sometimes we have to be specific in order to be general.’
Styling by Jessica Skeete-Cross
Grooming by Stefan Bertin at The Wall Group using Boy de Chanel and Chanel Le Lift Fluide.
Photographer’s assistants: James Stopforth, Guy Isherwood and Ella Williams