March 1, 2023

Holding Back and Holding Tight: On Steve McQueen’s Sunshine State

Max L. Feldman

Still from Steve McQueen, Sunshine State (2022).

The divine stare. An infernal gift. The sun is 92,955,887.6 miles from earth. Each moment a raging eruption at fifteen million degrees, a billion hydrogen bombs detonating every passing second. This blessing makes everything visible, makes life possible. Whether the sun is the origin of all human myth and belief matters less than how we use it to express ourselves: the eye of Ra for the Egyptians, the “smoking mirror” of the Aztecs, the “ruler of the day”1 for the Hebrews, Plato’s “overflowing treasury,”2 Mozart’s “penetrator of the night,”3 Byron’s “chief star.”4 Other names are available, as well as at least 132 sun gods, across all cultures from all over the world. They all point to one thing: out there in the black, seemingly forever away, our mortal trinket flaring caustic but not forever.

The sun is one of three elements in Steve McQueen’s Sunshine State (2022). We see passages from The Jazz Singer (1927) played forwards in negative on the left channel and backwards in ordinary black and white on the right, focusing on actor Al Jolson’s application of “blackface,” followed by intense strobe effects. Then there is footage of the sun as the camera closes in and slowly retreats, accompanied by a menacing grinding noise. We also hear McQueen’s own voice. During the Jazz Singer footage, the artist narrates a story his father told him on his deathbed; during the clips of the sun, he repeatedly growls, “Shine on me, sunshine state.”

The film has a duration of 30 minutes and 1 second, played on a loop, the cycle of images repeating itself as McQueen’s narrative dissolves like mutated memories. Two cycles are enough to clarify the significance of each element and understand that, in Sunshine State, McQueen is engaged in multiple acts of translation and “decentering.” One translation is between what Deleuze called the “movement-image” (The Jazz Singer footage as images of time passing) and the “time-image” (The Jazz Singer footage as virtual images that are time).5 Another is between silent cinema and “talkies,” since The Jazz Singer has the reputation of being the first talking picture. These two shifts echo two moments of reconciliation between father and son, one between the characters in The Jazz Singer, the other between McQueen and his own father. The artist does this to reflect on the fate of memory, grief, racism, self-knowledge, and art under conditions of what Fredric Jameson called the “total flow” of video images.6 This is all overseen, and thematically unified, by the sun: the symbolic condition of all visibility, time, memory, and death.

The Jazz Singer is the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson). Jakie rejects his traditional Jewish cantor father’s (Warner Oland) demand that he follow the family tradition. Jakie runs away from home to become a successful cabaret entertainer, using the name Jack Robin. In the end, Jakie is reconciled with his father when he sacrifices his showbiz breakthrough to sing the “Kol Nidre” (the opening prayer of atonement) during Yom Kippur at the synagogue in his dying father’s place. Jolson’s inestimable talent notwithstanding, two things are most relevant in Sunshine State.

First is The Jazz Singer’s historical importance. It’s known as the first talkie. However, only about a fifth of its eighty-nine-minute runtime involves lip-synchronous speech and singing. But in Sunshine State, Jolson is silent. In The Jazz Singer, Jolson’s natural conversational adlibs—including the famous line “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”—thrilled contemporary audiences. In Sunshine State, the only voice we hear is McQueen’s telling us his own story of atonement, his reconciliation with his father, emphasizing and transforming the compromises behind Jolson’s joyful improvisations. Second, in The Jazz Singer, Jolson’s performances as Jack Robin are all in blackface. In Sunshine State, McQueen focuses on sequences in which Jolson applies blackface and not those in which he performs in it. The artist then extends the questions this raises to Jolson’s entire physical form and appearance, which is imbued with a renewed significance in the story McQueen tells.

McQueen removes Jolson’s head from most of the Jazz Singer footage. The singer’s face appears translucent, an eerie spectral presence. We only see his face when he appears in blackface. Played backwards in black and white on the right channel, we see Jolson removing blackface against a white background; played forwards in negative on the left channel, however, he appears to be applying whiteface against a black background. Then our visual and narrative disorientation is intensified as the application/removal shots are rendered with strobing effects. As the intervals between flashes become ever seizure-inducingly closer to one another, the eye and the mind cannot settle on the distinction between left and right, forwards and backwards, black and white, blackface and whiteface. This uncertainty is shared by the story of terror and deep mourning that McQueen narrates.

The artist tells how, like many young men from the West Indies in the 1950s, his father, Philbert, was recruited by a work camp in Florida to pick oranges. One night, encouraged by two young men from Jamaica, Philbert broke the camp’s restrictive rules and snuck out to a bar. They are gawped at by the locals as they enter and racially abused when one of the Jamaican men asks for a drink (the barkeep uses a depraved word that is easily guessed but unworthy of repetition). One of the Jamaican men then smashes a bottle over the barkeep’s head. All three run away, chased by dogs. Philbert hides, terrified, disoriented, in a ditch for hours. He hears two loud bangs. Then silence. He returns to the camp, but never sees his companions again. The passage ends with McQueen explaining that this incident seems to have shaped his father’s life. He wonders what things could have been like if this hadn’t happened. It represents, the artist concludes, the fragility of life as a Black man. McQueen finishes by saying that, throughout his own life, he felt like his father was “holding [him] back.” When he hears this story, however, he realizes Philbert was, in fact, “holding [him] tight.”

Though this story is repeated with every cycle, McQueen’s delivery changes each time. Each version of events comes with minor omissions, hesitations, and additions of emphasis and energy. Sometimes single words and phrases with different degrees of narrative and symbolic significance—“father,” “we don’t serve [silence],” “running running running,” “two loud claps”—seem to appear from nowhere, interrupting silence. With each repetition, the memory of the story seems to degrade, fracture, fragment, the father’s dying wish and gift of love blazing mournful in the quiet. The most significant phrase, however, is the couplet “holding me back” and “holding me tight.”

This sadness, this terror, this disorientation shows how Sunshine State continues the “haptic vision” of McQueen’s earlier films: the intense bodily sensations they elicit beyond optical, visual perception.7 With the forwards/backwards narrative, strobes, low pulverizing sound, and use of voice, McQueen makes the viewer feel a convulsive unease in Sunshine State, like the elusive camera work of Catch (1997) or Western Deep (2002), the ravening dread in Hunger (2008), the vicious torture in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). And while there is an element of “haptic realism”8 here, as McQueen focuses on what might be otherwise unremarkable (blackface, particular narrative details in Philbert’s reported story, the sun) to intensify the viewer’s experience by eluding and not explaining broad historical facts, this is achieved through the stress on film as a medium (forwards and backwards, close-up and retreat, negative and black and white, strobing, disembodied voice) and not narrative visual description.

T. J. Demos makes the case that McQueen’s films are marked by a tension between Deleuze’s “time-image” and Jameson’s “total flow.”9 Deleuze distinguishes between the movement-image and the time-image. The movement-image represents time, showing us progression over time in the succession of cuts between “instants.”10 The time-image, however, is time. It presents a seeable time, something visible in front of us in space. The time-image makes memory “in the present” by requiring us to use our senses to actively read how images look and sound independently of their content, meaning, subject, narrative, or instants.11 Jameson describes total flow, on the other hand, as the unending, unified stream of images in television and video that “resists meaning.”12 This applies to Sunshine State in a modified form.

In Sunshine State, McQueen translates the movement-image into a sensorily overwhelming time-image. His use of the blackface-application sequences merges two types of movement-image specified by Deleuze: the “affection-image,” which consist of close-ups of faces (Jolson), and the long shots and takes of the “perception-image,” which represent “the drama of the visible and invisible” (the blackface itself, Philbert’s story, the sun).13 McQueen does this to reflect on and transform the presence of time in the images, turning the blackface-application process into a condensed index of time, the historical experience of race in general, and the very possibility of making and seeing images. In doing so, McQueen destabilizes the idea of total flow, showing the continuities between and mutual dependence of art on the classics of mass culture, and video and digital forms on older films, while confronting us with the purest image of another kind of total flow: the sun.

The Jazz Singer also marks the historic boundary between silent film and modern movies, so McQueen not only translates one type of image into another while subverting how they feel, but also resists a convention from narrative cinema: temporal foreshortening. This is what allows us to suspend our normal experience of real time, involving ourselves in the story. He’s done this before in his commercial films. One instance is in Hunger during the long, unbroken nineteen-minute take of a conversation between Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and fictional Nationalist priest Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). The other is in Twelve Years a Slave, where abducted freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is lynched for striking abusive overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), where the camera remains focused for several unbearable minutes on Northup’s torment, just close enough to the ground to breathe, just far enough from it to strangle. Both are examples of McQueen’s haptic vision of time in images. In Sunshine State, this haptic vision appears in a form of felt memory, audible in the introduction of the artist’s voice into a film that otherwise has no sound other than grinding sound that accompanies the images of the sun. This is not fully satisfying as an explanation, though. There is another way of accounting for the significance of the sun in Sunshine State. It comes from another comment in Demos’s essay, one whose potential he does not explore.

Demos says, of the autobiographical hints in McQueen’s Catch, Just Above My Head (1997), and Illuminer (2001), in which the artist foregrounds his own body and gestures, that “any centering of the self is also a decentering, a position that is also a dislocation.”14 This is worth emphasizing in Sunshine State because the centering and decentering of the self is one of the “extrascientific consequences” of the Copernican Revolution in astronomy, in which the sun is placed at the center of the universe at the expense of the earth.15

The second-century astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) gave us the “geocentric” worldview: earth was the center of the universe, orbited by the sun. Over a millennium later, Nicolaus Copernicus reversed this: his “heliocentric” universe placed the sun at the center of one local solar system, with earth and the other planets revolve around it. This shockingly transformed humanity’s understanding of itself and our relation to everything outside us—refuting our myths, desecrating our beliefs, throwing the Church’s power over all creation into intergalactic doubt. We thought God was holding us tight, but he was holding us back. This is the Copernican Revolution.

It also had consequences for philosophy and human thought in general. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant announced his “Copernican turn” in philosophy. Kant reoriented philosophy towards the subjective contribution we make to what we take to be objective knowledge about the world: from traditional metaphysics to a critical, “transcendental” philosophy. He compared this to Copernicus’s explanation that the earth moves around the sun.16 This influenced all subsequent philosophy, which deals with the consequences of Kant’s move. Adorno says Kant “grounds objectivity in the subject as an objective reality,” making what is knowable at all dependent on what we know since we are knowable thinking beings.17 Deleuze specifies that “the faculty of knowledge is legislative,” imposing a regular law-like conduct on what we know, like the movement of the earth around the sun.18 Heidegger was convinced that “ontic knowledge of beings must be guided in advance by ontological knowledge” so that the question of Being (of existence as such) takes priority over knowing what individual beings are like (their essence).19 Deleuze, of course, says that time-images are transcendental in the sense specified by Kant.20

Sunshine State makes us see, hear, and feel some of the deeper expressions of this sense of disorientation and reorientation, centering and decentering, in which not only is it possible that the universe has no center at all so that humanity’s self-image is shattered, but that, as Jean Laplanche puts it in a decentering move of his own based on Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, “Man, even as the subject of knowledge, is not the central reference-point of what he knows.”21

McQueen’s translation of movement-image to time-image decenters The Jazz Singer as a legendary talkie and a stable image. This disrupts our concept of total flow by resisting two other features of video identified by Jameson. One is the “structural exclusion of memory”; the other is “mechanical depersonalization” as the specific way in which video decenters us as the producers and viewers of images.22 By using his own immaterial voice, McQueen memorializes, personalizes, and yet still decenters his father’s story. And this is what first decentered the artist, when he realizes that he always thought his father was “holding [him] back” but now knows he was “holding [him] tight.” The sun, however, is the inventory of the emotional price of centering and decentering. It is a personal reckoning, a reorientation of what he thought his life was that uses cinematic techniques to move beyond cinema: the shift from movement-image to time-image is condensed into the experience of moving from “holding back” to “holding tight” and the reconciliation with a memory.

This also emphasizes the essential ambiguity of decentering and recentering. We sway, agonized between seeing ourselves “over there” defined by what we are not and knowing ourselves one way (Jakie’s father’s traditional Judaism, “holding back”), and retreating to recapture and return to ourselves when we find out we are not that (Jack Robin, Steve McQueen “held tight”). And in another decentering, this experience applies to all of us: humanity’s whole sense that we are alone not just in our earthly lives, but in the cold outer recesses of dead, infinite space, in which our sun is just one local star amid uncountable legions of heavenly bodies. Jakie’s reconciliation with his father and McQueen’s reconciliation with the memory of his father emphasize the mournful devotion that comes from fully realizing you have been loved, that supreme act of centering and decentering, even if it was never fully spoken. This now-unreturnable love is reflected in the stammering lapses in the artist’s narration of Philbert’s story, which reintroduces memory into total flow. What stays the same is racism and the sun. Philbert, as McQueen tell us in the narrative, is a “Victorian name,” an Old German name meaning “very bright.” Florida, meanwhile, where Philbert picked oranges, is known as the “Sunshine State.”


Genesis 1:16. Almost all English translations render the strong, political dimension of the Hebrew לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת (lememselet) as “to rule,” “to govern,” “to have dominion,” or “to regulate.”


Plato, The Republic, trans. by Tom Griffith, ed. G. R. F. Ferrari (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 215 (508b). Οὐκοῦν καὶ τὴν δύναμιν ἣν ἔχει ἐκ τούτου ταμιευομένην ὥσπερ ἐπίρρυτον κέκτηται.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Magic Flute (1791), trans. Andrew Porter (Faber, 1985). As priest of the sun Sarastro drives out the Queen of the Night and the sun rises on the united lovers Tamino and Pamina, the final chorus sings: “Heil sei euch Geweihten! / Ihr dränget durch Nacht! / Dank! sei dir Osiris! / Dank! dir Isis gebracht! / Es siegte die Stärke / und krönet zum Lohn / die Schönheit und Weisheit / mit ewiger Kron’!”


Lord Byron, “Manfred” (1816–17), in The Major Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford University Press, 1986), 307.


Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983), trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (University of Minnesota Press, 1989).


Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Verso, 1991), 70.


Okwui Enwezor, “Haptic Visions: The Films of Steve McQueen,” in Steve McQueen (ICA, 1999), 44.


Toni Ross, “Resonances of Nineteenth-Century Realism in Steve McQueen’s Hunger,” in Framing Film: Cinema and the Visual Arts, ed. Steven Allen and Laura Hubner (Intellect Books, 2012), 167–68.


T. J. Demos, “The Art of Darkness: On Steve McQueen,” October, no. 114 (Autumn 2005).


Deleuze, Cinema 1, 7–8.


Deleuze, Cinema 2, 52.


Jameson, Postmodernism, 91.


Deleuze, Cinema 1, 70.


Demos, “The Art of Darkness,” 79.


Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Harvard University Press, 1957), 4.


Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), Unified Edition, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Hackett, 1996), 21 (B.xvi).


Theodor W. Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1959), trans Rodney Livingstone, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford University Press, 2001), 2.


Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties (1963), trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (The Athlone Press, 1984), 14.


Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1927–28/1997), trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Indiana University Press, 1997), 38.


Deleuze, Cinema 2, 271.


Jean Laplanche, “The Unfinished Copernican Revolution” (1992), trans. Luke Thurston, in Essays in Otherness (Routledge, 1999), 57.


Jameson, Postmodernism, 71, 74.

Film, Contemporary Art, Philosophy

Max L. Feldman is a writer and educator based in London. His writing about contemporary art has appeared in Artforum, ArtReview, e-flux, FlashArt, Frieze, Mousse, and others, and he has lectured in philosophy at universities including Heythrop College (University of London), the University of Roehampton, and the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.


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