Born in London, McQueen grew up in West London and went to Drayton Manor High School. He was a keen footballer, turning out for the St. Georges Colts football team. He did an art A level at Hammersmith and West London College, then studied art and design at Chelsea College of Art and Design and then fine art at Goldsmiths College where he first became interested in film. He left Goldsmiths in 1993 and then studied briefly at the Tisch School in New York City. He found the approach there not experimental enough for him, however, complaining that "they wouldn't let you throw the camera up in the air".
McQueen's films, which are typically projected onto one or more walls of an enclosed space in an art gallery, are often in black and white and minimalist. He has cited the influence of the nouvelle vague and the films of Andy Warhol. He often appears in the films himself.
His first major work was Bear (1993), in which two naked men (one of them McQueen) exchange a series of glances which might be taken to be flirtatious or threatening. One of his best known works, Deadpan (1997), is a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around McQueen who is left unscathed because he is standing where there is a missing window.
As well as being in black and white, both these films are silent. The first of McQueen's films to use sound was also the first to use multiple images: Drumroll (1998). This was made with three cameras, two mounted to the sides, and one to the front of an oil drum which McQueen rolled through the streets of Manhattan. The resulting films are projected on three walls of an enclosed space. McQueen has also made sculptures such as White Elephant (1998) and photographs.
He won the Turner Prize in 1999, although much of the publicity went to Tracey Emin, who was also a nominee.
His 2008 film Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. McQueen received the Caméra d'Or (first-time director) Award at Cannes. The film was also awarded the inaugural Sydney Film Festival Prize, for "its controlled clarity of vision, its extraordinary detail and bravery, the dedication of its cast and the power and resonance of its humanity". The film also won the 2008 Diesel Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The award is voted on by the press attending the festival. "Hunger" also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. award for a New Generation film in 2008 and the best film prize at the London Evening Standard Film Awards in 2009.
Steve McQueen is represented by Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. He lives and works in Amsterdam and London.