ACIS Logo Workers Leaving the Prison: Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) as Imperial Labor Film

The labor film has taken on new forms in post-industrial Europe and America. In this paper, I argue that Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) represents a compelling recent mutation of the genre. Hunger depicts the protests of Irish Republican prisoners inside the Maze Prison that culminated in the 1981 Irish hunger strike. At the same time, the film also puts forward an extended representation of the labor of the prison workers who beat, humiliate, care for, and counsel the prisoners throughout the protests. By merging the genres of labor film, prison film, and Irish Troubles film, Hunger imagines the Maze prison as a microcosm of a post-industrial Northern Irish economy where labor has left the factory and become conjoined to the state. Situating Hunger within the contexts of contemporary labor film, earlier films about the Northern Irish “Troubles‚” and McQueen’s larger body of work, I respond to interpretations of the film that characterize it as “apolitical.” Rather, I argue, Hunger is actually about the consequences of remaining neutral in a society imagined as a large-scale state prison. The laboring characters suffer precisely because they fail to identify with a collective project; neither Republican nor Loyalist, they instead become mere appendages of the disciplinary state. Hunger, I show, draws on the motifs of labor film and the “affective abstraction” of late modernist structural film in order to represent how merely following orders has an even more brutal effect on human beings than joining a suicidal, potentially hopeless resistance.

Published on: April 19, 2020