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Small Axe is the latest creative work from filmmaker Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, and Widows. This is an anthology of five films, released on different streaming platforms depending on country, depicting changing eras and experiences of the West Indian community in and around London from the 1960s to the 1980s. The title is taken from the proverb made famous by the eponymous Bob Marley song:
“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”
Mangrove is about the trial of the “Mangrove Nine”, people involved with protests against the police targeting of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill in 1970. Shaun Parkes stars as Frank Crichlow, the real-life owner of the restaurant and who’s roped into the conflict without being the leader of the protest or its figurehead in anyway. The leadership is taken by Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and the figurehead is Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), but Parkes’ Crichlow is our point-of-view because of how much he takes on as someone just trying to live their life. Because they happen to be Black and successful, it puts a target on them for the worst reasons, and he serves as a microcosm for the West Indian community in this time and place. Being an activist is a good and brave thing to take on, but most victims of racism are everyday citizens providing for families and contributing to society. What is most brilliant about Mangrove is how much diligent time it spends with the Notting Hill community. The smells and sounds that fill the streets and fuel the atmosphere of the Mangrove restaurant, or the unique language that fires off between friends and family. This is a rich and vibrant centre of strong culture that is interrupted and invaded by bored racist lunatics with too much power. Sound familiar? The film builds to the momentous court case that is a long, exhausting journey of degrading humiliation for these people roped into a sham trial that looks to paint the Mangrove Nine and indeed this community of Black people as violent thugs who cannot be trusted.
It is an odd coincidence that Mangrove came out only a few months after Netflix’ The Trial of the Chicago 7. Both look at watershed court cases that were about resisting social injustice and were false executions of so-called justice that had terrible racial biases. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two as they are different films made by wildly different filmmakers, but it can’t be helped that Mangrove highlights my frustrations with Trial of the Chicago 7. Aaron Sorkin filmed his movie in a standard and by-the-numbers approach, rarely allowing for much subjectivity with the camera and letting his fast-paced script dictate everything. Mangrove, like most of McQueen’s films, is driven beautifully by the image, but still marries it with a moving story about exhaustion and frustration with the system. Mangrove feels like the kind of film that deserves to be a film, with so many images like a colander rolling on the ground, someone’s silhouette in raindrops on a car bonnet, white sunlight overtaking a character’s entire figure, or smoke obscuring the face of a broken man are burned into my brain and define the beauty amidst the chaos. Mangrove moves efficiently, shot and edited to perfection by Shabier Kirchner, Chris Dickens and Steve McQueen, respectively, has one of 2020’s best performances from Shaun Parkes, and is one of McQueen’s best works as a director. That is saying something.
Lovers Rock isn’t about any real people, though these characters certainly feel like they could have existed. Set during a reggae house party in West London in 1980, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet and fall in love over the course of this night. The entire film is just this house party that starts simply enough and then ascends into a burning night of loud, sweaty, nerve-firing, blood-pumping, pulsating passion. The walls of this house are literally sweating. You can feel the electricity flow from every changing record and plugged-in amplifier, shooting out and being absorbed by the magnetic Black bodies on screen. In many ways, Lovers Rock is completely different to Mangrove. Mangrove tells a straightforward three-act narrative about racial injustice shot on 35mm film. Lovers Rock is like a one-act experimental mood piece that has no real rising or falling narrative beyond two people falling in love, doesn’t go into any ideas of racism or injustice, and is shot digitally. It’s truly amazing to watch from film-to-film Steve McQueen doing new things, putting the camera in truly unique places, and finding such dynamic and incredible ways to tell a simple story about love and music.
Lovers Rock is a joyous and insightful snapshot of young, bold, Black life dancing to the infectious grooves of music that defines the true connection the West Indian community has. There’s still some party-related drama that comes around like some people having a bit too much to drink or smoke, friends leaving friends to go hook up, an unwanted guest or two that almost spoils the vibe, and an attempted rape by the only character one could call the antagonist in this film. The conflict is dealt with quickly and realistically. Some people who go out are looking for something terrible. Try to stick with your friends and those you know and you can have a great night. That’s really the only message Lovers Rock has: stay safe and be good to each other. It might satisfy the visually and mood-oriented film fans out there more, and the switch to digital has a few frame rate errors that really only bug me. Lovers Rock is still such a sonorous, physically-moving, stimulating, exhilarating, and intoxicating piece of work that will have you feeling every drop of drink, slow drag of a joint, and record scratch as if you were right there.
Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a real-life former research scientist who joins the London Metropolitan Police in 1983 with the aim of reforming its relationship with his local community from the inside out. Leroy’s decision conflicts with his father Ken (Steve Toussaint) who’s been the victim of racial profiling and aims to sue the Met Police for their abuses of power. Leroy goes through training and establishment as a Constable and is used by the police as a poster boy for showing a stronger relationship with Black communities by hiring one of their own. At first, these plans seems positive and exactly what Leroy Logan was hoping to achieve with the police. However, his father refuses to speak to him, his community derides his actions because of their abusive and ignorance experiences with the police, and other police officers use racist tactics to humiliate and reject Logan. He has a triple-threat of rejection from his father, friends and co-workers which fuels a constant frustration and exhaustion within Leroy even after he proves himself as an excellent and heroic police officer. Red, White and Blue ends before Leroy Logan created the Black Police Association and led his illustrious career of police reform. Here, he’s an optimistic and eager young man beaten down slowly by that which he can’t control. How does someone live a life they want when everyone around them hates them for it?
The truth of Red, White and Blue is that father-and-son tension between Ken and Leroy, dancing back and forth between words not being shared and reluctant embraces because, well, Leroy is still Ken’s son. The choices of the son affect the father, but the father must still support his son. It’s all he can do, even if it hurts. John Boyega gives one of the best performances of his entire career; focused, commanding, sensitive, volatile, a bubbling pot of exhaustion inside that burts with fire and fury that Boyega always does so well. Steve McQueen frames Boyega’s Leroy perfectly, often disconnected from a whole group of people, shadowed in total darkness even though it’s a scene in broad daylight, or showing the most tender moments of Leroy with his father from far away, as if their emotional honesty is a secret. McQueen and Shabier Kirchner return to 35mm cinematography, giving the film a grittier look that fits so well with the story. The 80-minute running is surprising and might leave you wanting a bit more, but ends at such a great point of emotional silence that the story feels complete, even if it’s a depressing note of futility. Red, White and Blue is an excellent look at the intensity and steady disintegration of optimism in systems of power, and provides prescient commentary on systemic racism.
Alex Wheatle stars Sheyi Cole as the titular Black British man who spends most of his childhood bouncing around children’s homes until he is taken in by distant family and reconnects with his Jamaican roots. Alex learns how to be a Jamaican man, to walk and talk like one, and finds his place making music under the Crucial Rocker sound system and DJ name Yardman Irie. The movie is told mostly in flashbacks as Alex thinks about his life during imprisonment for involvement in the 1981 Brixton riots. Alex Wheatle, just like Frank Crichlow in Mangrove and Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, is a real man who led a fascinating life of consequences and reconciliation. Wheatle went on to be an acclaimed novelist writing about his life and imprisonment, highlighting the importance of education and ancestry. Alex Wheatle shows a lost young man without a family or home begin to find such things, as heartbreaking as they are.
One incredible scene has Alex attend a massive family dinner with his cousin (Robbie Gee) where everyone is loud, energetic and incredibly close to each other that it partially disturbs Alex. He’s never experienced this kind of comfortability and kindness and instead of slipping right into things like second-nature, he walks home in tears. Even when he’s been given the home and culture he wished for as a boy, it still torments him that he’s never had that until this moment. The film touches upon the important moments of Alex Wheatle’s life, but ends without going deep enough into his rehabilitation and second life as a novelist. At only 66 minutes, Alex Wheatle feels cut short and you’ll be left wanting more, but it’s still a beautiful-looking and affecting film nonetheless. Each one of these films has felt like whole movies inside a “miniseries” format, and Alex Wheatle is the only one to feel like a TV episode which may be less than what the others achieve, but still leaves with one important message: education is everything.
Education is the final Small Axe film and stars Kenyah Sandy as Kinglsey Smith, a young boy who is struggling terribly at school to the point where his teachers send Kingsley to a “special” school that regards him on the same level as children on the spectrum or those with severe behavioural disabilities. Kingsley only struggles with reading as he was never taught properly by his ignorant teachers or his distant parents (Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis) both working most hours of the day to support Kingsley and his sister (Tamara Lawrance). Kinglsey does find comfort in being the best of his class of special education children, and at the same time Kinglsey’s kind and supportive educational counsellor Hazel (Naomi Ackie) begins rallying support to uncover racism in the London educational system who regard Kingsley’s class as “educationally subnormal”. Kingsley’s situation becomes a microcosm for the gross negligence found in British education that disproportionately affects Black children and writes them off as “subnormal”, which then directly involves Kingsley’s mother and sister. Kingsley’s father rejects the intense focus on his education, demanding that he simply “learn a trade” if he wants a good life. All of this leads to a climax where Kingsley is forced to come to terms that he just cannot read and needs help.
Much of the story of Education is based on real-life experiences that Steve McQueen had as a child. He was put into classes for the “educationally subnormal”, a product of the institutional racism of the time, which never assisted with his dyslexia and lazy eye. Kingsley Smith is a reflection of McQueen’s youth, glasses and all. He’s put into a class that ignores actual problems many children have with disabilities, and his education is left to the whims of the powerful and ignorant, which begs for intervention from his scraped-to-the-edges family and loved ones. In many ways, Education is as narratively and visually powerful as Mangrove and Lovers Rock, but is receiving nowhere near the attention from critics. Kenyah Sandy is heartbreaking as this hopeful young boy who just wants to be a playful kid, but you know that he has to learn properly if he has any chance of being happy in life. Happiness as a child can only last for so long, so to see him come to terms with his illiteracy is perhaps the most emotionally devastating moment of the entire Small Axe series. We are seeing a filmmaker come to terms with the realities of his youth, not presented with blinding nostalgia. The film ends as it begins, with a wonderful and wide-eyed young boy looking up at the stars in unimaginable awe at their visual beauty. Perhaps he will live a life of creative fulfillment and take on the love of his family as the definition of the man he will become. We certainly do hope so. Education, shot perfectly on 16mm,is a beautiful, incredibly important, and deeply affecting film that ends the Small Axe series on a note of tender optimism that we need today.
I give so much credit to Steve McQueen as the director of each film, but right there guiding each story and creating the rich and graceful lives we see on screen are the co-writers Alastair Siddons (Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, Education) and Courttia Newland (Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue). The production design of each film captures so perfectly the specific times of the settings, from the early 70s to the late 80s. Shabier Kircher’s cinematography is impeccable across all five, switching effortlessly between different sizes of film to digital photography, a first for McQueen. The editing, shared between McQueen and Chris Dickens, is totally perfect for each film, and Mica Levi’s score for Mangrove is just as subversive and affecting as any of her previously brilliant work.
Small Axe is a fascinating and deeply powerful experiment for a filmmaker always willing to change things up. The quality may not be totally consistent as Mangrove is brilliant and Alex Wheatle is just good, but that is the nature of all anthologies. Steve McQueen is still one of the finest directors of our age, crafting powerful films with amazing collaborators that then deliver such insightful commentary to our tumultuous times. We must remember the realities of our past and seek a better future that we were once so certain of. Small Axe is one of the best pieces of filmmaking from 2020 and is priority viewing for those wanting a true education.
Do not forget about this work come Emmy season in September.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons, Courttia Newland
Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, John Boyega, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy
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