Steve McQueen’s ‘Bear’ is an exploration of intimacies among Black men
We deserve the tenderness and longing for one another which we display only to then hide from expressions of male-to-male intimacy.
by Donnie Moreland
Two Black men, their naked bodies shifting in-between spaces where shadows were not obstructed by an abrasive key-light. The slow moving image stripped bare of any noise aside from my own breath. Even still, their bodies colliding, their grunting, their moaning—though I could not hear—shook me as thunder might. I was disquieted, unsure if I were discomforted or erotically curious. I was left transfixed on the silence of it all. A silence which seemed purposefully continuous once the film’s run-time expired.
This was my first time with Director Steve McQueen’s first major visual work, Bear (1993). Apart from a few stills and excerpts captured during its initial showing at the Tate Gallery in the 90s, the task of viewing Bear seems to be a fool’s errand. Prior to his feature film directorial debut with Hunger (2008), McQueen was an internationally regarded video artist—the scope of his intentions matched only by, appropriately, the transgressive aesthetics of his mentor Isaac Julien’s contribution to the medium.
McQueen’s video art is noted as being massive, multi-screen installations which include, but are not limited to, projected images soaking up every dimension of an exhibit hall to guarantee the complete participation of his audience.
Bear, in 10 minutes, interrogates the soul of Black men, in proximity to one another, and asks what occurs in the spaces between us, when we quarrel, love, and harm one another. For someone who knows the tension of being in close proximity with bodies like my own, Bear is a proclamation of reclamation—a mastering of our bodies and a mastering of what occurs between the spaces of our flesh when we converge.
Not much happens within the 10 minute run-time of Bear. Two men, both Black—one being McQueen—move around each other, coming together, occasionally, and tussling in sometimes aggressive interactions and sometimes playful interactions. Sometimes one smiles at the other as they both stare to “gain an edge” on the other before engaging, once more, and breaking away in frustration following that exchange. Only to repeat the motions and break from each other again with boyish grins.
It’s a strange, quiet interplay which tip-toes between tenderness, flirtation, agitation, conflict, and longing. Though not much happens on screen, there is, for the spectator, an overflow of physiological reactions with which to contend—especially when you consider its audience. Remembering that this work was exhibited in a gallery space, and was intended for such a space, there is something McQueen is negotiating with the exhibit’s assumedly predominantly white patronage (considering the geographic, and fiscal, accessibility of the Tate Gallery for white Londoners as compared to Black), that he isn’t so much with any other group in observance. He is negotiating ownership.
McQueen is aware of the two distinct presumptions of what occurs between Black men, in the eyes of the white spectator. Something between danger and lust. Between the frightful and the fuckable. Visual media, especially of the moving image, explodes these ethnic notions producing grotesque distortions which fulfill strange racial fantasies. This is why the same group of twenty something year old Black men, standing on a street corner, can be objects of criminal obsession in a procedural cop drama and objects of both hetero and homo erotic desire, in a pornographic flick. Never do we see the full gamut of what’s possible in our fraternal expressions. What McQueen does to counter this type of soft racial domination is make the bodies of Black men, quite literally, too large to possess-in the same medium where our agency is compulsively interrupted for deviant race play.
There is a moment, in the film, when the camera is placed on the floor, facing upward and capturing the genitals of each man as they struggle against each other. When this part of the film is projected, filling even the borders of an exhibit hall, what could elicit a desire to consume both of these bodies, on the part of white patrons, as a response to some fixation on the racially oriented homoerotics of Black male nudity, becomes something altogether culturally transcendent.
The bodies become too large to consume, the power of consumption subverted and the patron becoming consumed by the bodies, as they are literally covered by the genitalia of both men. The fantasy of possession is fractured as the bodies morph the dimensions of the proximal relationships between white patrons and the bodies in view. What were privileges are now reconciliations of cultural impotence in reaction to that which should have never been negotiated as something to be possessed, especially by any party non-Black, non-male identified.
Brother to Brother
In a 1996 interview with Patricia Bickers, of Art Monthly, Steve McQueen comments on the subject of silence in Bear, suggesting that “the whole idea of making it a silent piece is so that when people walk into the space they become very much aware of themselves, of their own breathing.” My breath became all-together heavier, watching the piece, as it does when discovering something new, something potentially dangerous. I’ll return to this word, danger, in due time but understand that my relationship with the bodies of other cis-heteronormative Black men is fraught with apprehension.
I love my kinfolk and some of my racial anxieties are secondhand prejudicial impressions handed over by the news, Facebook videos, and other purveyors of modern racist iconography, but there are parts of being in my body, in proximity to other owners of bodies like my own which are exhausting. Competitive swaggering, social taunting, and random acts of violence are often derivative and fatiguing.
But even within our interpersonal interplay, the conflating of soft platonically intimate expressions as homosexual desire is, for lack of a better phrase, played out. Suggesting anything about the sexual proclivities of another due to a seemingly prolonged embrace between two Black male-identified persons is an act of ownership as morally villainous as what I was arguing against the eyes of whites, previous.
But therein lies the danger of Bear. It’s a harm to cultural motifs which suggest something about Black men and our expressions of maleness, with each other, that just isn’t true. The nudity, here, as an expression of the souls of us—our Blackness in its most uninterrupted expressions—is a reminder of all that is possible for us, between us. We deserve the tenderness and longing for one another which we display only to then hide from expressions of male-to-male intimacy. It’s reparatory.
As much as any measure outwardly political, the full appreciation for our bodies, and in turn the bodies of every other Black-male identified person is how we discover healing. As much as McQueen is punishing the eyes of strangers who dare to own us, he’s proclaiming that silence between us, when we collide—that silence which allows only the sound of one’s breath—as something to master, as something to honor.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.