Currently there are about 2 million Americans in prison. Some of them are genuine criminals. Some, like Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Leonard Peltier, are internationally recognized political prisoners. Most are somewhere in between.
In the United States, the dividing line is race. A young black man will do time for marijuana. A young white man won’t. In Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, the dividing line was religion. Bobby Sands, who grew up in and around Belfast, experienced so much anti-Catholic bigotry as a child that joining the Provisional IRA in 1972 at the age of 18 was almost an act of self defense. Given a 14-year sentence in 1977 for weapons possession, he arrived at the “Long Kesh” prison shortly after Margaret Thatcher had revoked the Special Category Status (SCS) given to prisoners jailed for acts during “the troubles.” Provisional IRA members were no longer POWs. They were common criminals. Hunger, the debut film of director Steve McQueen, dramatizes the Provisional IRA’s struggle at the Maze Prison to regain its status as a political organization.
Starring German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, and roughly divided into three acts, Hunger is not an easy film to watch. It opens with the “blanket” and “dirty” protests, the refusal of IRA members like Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell to wear prison uniforms, or even to wash, until the British government restores the Special Category Status. On the surface, their protest looks irrational, even insane. Men willing to live in their own excrement, however, are difficult, if not impossible to control. They can defeat a prison regime designed to break their will by the use of the carrot and the stick. They dictate the terms. Restore the Special Category Status or no Provisional IRA member will cooperate in any way.
In the film’s second act, we learn that Bobby Sands, and the IRA members under his command at the Maze Prison, are now willing to go much further than the blanket and dirty protests. Since the British government has escalated the conflict to include systematic beatings and torture – a scene where naked prisoners are made to run through a gauntlet of riot police swinging batons recalls an incident in Bobby Sands’ childhood where Catholic schoolboys were made to run a gauntlet of Protestants with rocks and sticks – the Provisional IRA must escalate its resistance. As Sands tells a priest in an extended 20 minute take, he is not only willing to die. He is planning to die. He will lead a series of hunger strikes, each of which will be started two weeks after the last, and each man in turn will starve himself until the British government restores the Special Category Status.
This is the hunger strike that made Sands famous. While Hunger never shows us the international campaign to pressure Margaret Thatcher to recognize Bobby Sands as a political prisoner, it does dramatize the extraordinary will and courage that allowed him to die for his country. For the Catholic Sands, to go ahead with the hunger strike after the priest tells him he’ll be committing suicide, and quite possibly going to hell, required absolute faith in his ideals. The final act of Hunger – for which the 6 foot tall, 170 pound Fassbender dieted down to 130 pounds – recalls Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc in its depiction of a religious martyr willing to die in excruciating pain without the support of the church or the promise of heaven. Whether or not Sands ended up in Paradise – he had remarked to the priest that the thief crucified next to Jesus had it easy since he knew he would – is of course impossible to know. Throughout the film, Steve McQueen has gone out of his way to show that the only rewards for standing up to the British government are dirt, torture, excrement, and death.
That Sands resisted anyway is part of what makes it impossible for Hunger, which often descends into arty torture porn, to fully capture him on film.