When director Steve McQueen was 14, a neighbor introduced him to the work of Paul Robeson. McQueen was initially intrigued by the legendary performer and activist’s commanding presence, and he began to research his career. He, like many others who have studied Robeson, was amazed. Of the level of inspiration, he said that “it was a like a whale rising from the sea.”
McQueen went on to pursue a career as an artist, making well-regarded short films like Deadpan, Drumroll, Gravesend and Static. Of course, he also began making feature films, most notably the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave, but his interest in Robeson never waned and he continued to research the legend’s career.
About six years ago he embarked on a project about Robeson. Titled End Credits, like the final roll of a movie, McQueen’s project is plaintive, compelling and exhaustive. He takes reams of reports from FBI surveillance and scrolls them on a screen as male and female actors do voice-overs of the reports. Initially a three-hour installation, the current iteration is 21 hours long and is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City until May 14 as part of its “Open Plan” exhibition series. The series offers pop-up exhibits to leading artists and musicians in its fifth-floor Neil Bluhm Family Gallery.
End Credits reveals documents unearthed by the Freedom of Information Act, a half-century-old legislation that allows anyone to request that previously classified documents be made public. McQueen was particularly curious about the hostility waged by the U.S. government against one of its most illustrious citizens.
“It’s absolutely astonishing,” said McQueen during the museum’s opening-night Q&A session Friday about the breadth and detail of the FBI monitoring of Robeson, noting that even leisure activities were reported on and that surveillance of the legend’s associates continued for two years after his death in 1976.
Just as some of the most compelling scenes from McQueen’s previous films are long shots without dialogue, some of the most compelling aspects of End Credits are also implicit. There are sections of the FBI reports that are missing. Sections, almost whole pages, are redacted or literally blotted out with black ink, which gives a sense of more sinister implications from the government’s harassment of Robeson. That evidence also showed McQueen that the landmark legislation has given us freedom but not always given us information.
The filmmaker hasn’t abandoned his other artwork; the Whitney is also exhibiting McQueen’s sculptural work Moonlit. Not surprisingly, McQueen says he often looks at filmmaking as sculpture, removing the unnecessary elements for maximum impact.
“The role of the artist is to start a conversation,” McQueen said, noting that End Credits is a work in progress and that there are enough documents to create a 72-hour film of actors reading them. He also said that the experience has deepened his fascination with Robeson and he has begun working on a biopic.
During the opening-night gallery talk, Whitney senior curator Donna De Salvo asked McQueen about his films being about power. McQueen smiled and said, “Ninety-nine percent of all film is about power.” Then he paused and added, “Or it is about the lack of power.”
Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter.