I was just hitting my teen years when Steve McQueen, the iconic actor, died. I was quite a bit older when I did voice-over work for the other Steve McQueen, the prolific artist and filmmaker, whose work is masterfully unflinching and honest.
I was deeply affected by his feature films Hunger and Shame, and felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do voice-over work for McQueen as part of his multimedia art installation End Credits.
For End Credits, I read several hours worth of declassified FBI documents on Paul Robeson, the legendary singer and actor who was a groundbreaking and prodigious activist for civil rights, the rights of workers, and anti-colonialist freedom movements. The FBI documents were mostly wiretap transcripts, surveillance accounts, and some wildly paranoid letters from “concerned” citizens — all in support of the suspicion that the outspoken and freedom-loving Robeson was un-American, pro-Soviet, and Communist.
Robeson was extensively persecuted by the U.S. government and press. After appearing before McCarthy’s HUAC, Robeson’s passport was revoked for eight years. As an artist who was internationally popular but under a cloud of suspicion in “Red Scare” America, being confined to the U.S. effectively decimated his career. Even when he got his passport back, he was grossly mistreated. After suffering strange psychological distress (which some suspect was due to chemicals administered by the CIA as part of their infamous Project MKUltra), Robeson was subjected to extensive electroconvulsive therapy and barbiturates at The Priory Hospital in London (also consistent with Project MKUltra techniques).
Though forced to retire from ill health at the age of 65, Robeson’s courage and persistence despite all the persecution is truly astounding. The persecution of such artists and activists by the paranoid and powerful is certainly not a thing of the past. McQueen’s End Credits stands as both a tribute and a warning.
“End Credits” Credits
End Credits debuted in a major Steve McQueen exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago on October 21, 2012.
Its second showing kicked off at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland on March 16, 2013 as part of the same exhibition.
The London-born Steve McQueen is based in Amsterdam.