LONDON, Thursday, 16 January 2014 – Londoners are all very excited about the forthcoming awards season as two of our own are up for the ones that get the headlines. Having won the award for best film at the Globes with ’12 Years A Slave’, Steve McQueen has now been nominated in the same category for the Oscars and the British equivalent: the Baftas. His leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor is also nominated in the Best Male Actor category.
Ejiofor and McQueen are both Londoners, though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. It’s a common refrain that it’s helpful to think of the city as a collection of villages and in the case of these two, their London journeys could not have been more different. McQueen spent his formative years in Hanwell, an unglamorous area of west London that suffers by comparison to the neighbouring leafy enclave of Ealing. Ejiofor lived in Forest Gate in the more deprived east side.
So far, so unremarkable. What set them on the path to success was education of two very different kinds. Dulwich college is a stunning looking fee paying school that Ejiofor was lucky enough to attend. It’s the kind of place that anglophile tourists coo over, their descriptions ranging from ‘quaint’ to ‘so British’. Ejiofor started acting here, which lead to him joining the National Youth Theatre, thus setting him on the thespian path. Over in Hanwell, McQueen was having a miserable time of it, having been lumped in with the thick kids because of the colour of his skin. On returning to present some awards, the principal admitted the school had been institutionally racist.
What saved McQueen was art college. Impressing with his portfolio, he eventually ended up at Goldsmith’s, the almer mater of many notable British artists such as Damien Hirst and Lucien Freud. The Turner Prize, the biggest and most controversial of British art prizes, went his way in 1999 – it was a video installation of a drum rolling through Manhattan. His feature films have focused heavily on suffering, the first, ‘Hunger’ telling the tale of IRA member Bobby Sands’ hunger strike and the second, ‘Shame’ observing the protagonist in the grip of sex addiction. So there you have it. Two very different London stories that have lead to Hollywood success.
Their nominations come at an interesting time. Immigration policy is the subject of much debate in the UK currently, both in parliament and the press. Bulgarians and Romanians gained the same working rights as other European citizens at the turn of the year and concerns have been raised about surrendering jobs and services to new arrivals when the country is still recovering from recession. Ejiofor is of Nigerian descent and McQueen’s family are from Grenada. For liberal thinkers, their nominations are a triumph. Both actor and director stand as positive examples of the contribution that immigration has made to our culture. We’re proud to call them British.