BY Leila Latif in Opinion | 16 NOV 20

Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’: Stories Britain Needs to Hear

The five-film series is an epic, tender portrait of London’s West Indian community

BY Leila Latif in Opinion | 16 NOV 20

One of the things that is most evident in Steve McQueen’s extraordinary ‘Small Axe’ series of films is that he still identifies with outsiders. Despite the BAFTAs, the Oscars, a Turner Prize and a knighthood, these films all come from a perspective of vulnerability and disempowerment. The five films made with the BBC are about London’s West Indian community in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, each with a distinct tone and pace. They tell stories that are often left untold, of people struggling with identity and making a life for themselves in a system stacked against them. (The title itself comes from a Jamaican proverb about collective struggle: ‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.’) Britain has yet to fully confront its legacy of racism or celebrate the heroism of those who sought to dismantle it, often focusing on America’s sins rather than its own. ‘Small Axe’, as well as being great art, is a timely corrective of the misunderstood and forgotten legacy that our society is built on.

Steve McQueen, Lover’s Rock from the series ‘Small Axe’, 2020, production still. Courtesy: BBC/McQueen Limited

‘Small Axe’ comes at the end of an auspicious year for McQueen. His Tate retrospective, which opened in February, was the first major exhibition of his work there since he won the Turner Prize in 1999. Tate also exhibited his Year 3 (2019) project, for which he photographed more than 75,000 children across London’s primary schools, an unapologetically optimistic look at the city’s future. That, on top of all that, he managed to create ‘Small Axe’ – an anthology of consistent excellence – is nothing short of miraculous.

Mangrove tells the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists framed for inciting a riot by racist police in 1970. Their 55-day trial at the Old Bailey was a landmark moment in acknowledging the systemic racism within British institutions. Courtroom dramas have, over the years, been co-opted by mediocre television, but Mangrove reminds us of how thrilling they can be in the hands of great filmmakers. Shaun Parkes centres this film as Frank Crichlow, beleaguered proprietor of the eponymous Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. A living Rodin sculpture, his every movement is heavy with the weight of the world. Around him, the supporting cast is consistently excellent, with Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe delivering powerful and nuanced performances. McQueen’s artistry shines through in the most unexpected moments – focusing on a rocking colander during a police raid or on Shaun Parkes’s soulful eyes in the midst of chaos.

Steve McQueen on set during the filming of Mangrove from the series ‘Small Axe’, 2020. Courtesy: BBC/McQueen Limited

Red, White and Blue is based on the early career of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), former superintendent of the Metropolitan Police who intended to reform it from the inside following a racist attack on his father. Themes of police brutality feel particularly poignant following the murder of George Floyd last summer; in the subsequent protests Boyega risked his career to vocally participate. Boyega’s performance is the electrifying apex of his career so far and his father – a fiery and complicated man of great dignity – is played with equal magnetism by Steve Toussaint. The relationship between the two is so compelling that the supporting cast, made up of talented actors such as Antonia Thomas and Nadine Marshall, barely register in comparison. However, despite Red, White and Blue containing two of the strongest individual performances across Small Axe, the script is considerably weaker than Mangrove’s – filled with uncharacteristic exposition-heavy dialogue. That aside, this is a film of great power and McQueen’s signature flair is ever present; police cars glide like shark fins towards their prey and a long uncut chase builds terror to an almost unbearable level. It serves as a fitting tribute to the bravery and talent of both Leroy Logan and John Boyega.  

In complete contrast is Lovers Rock, a film about a party in Ladbroke Grove in 1980. There is no strict narrative to follow beyond a budding romance between the delightful Franklyn (Michael Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and, unburdened by the mechanics of plot, McQueen fires on all cylinders. Two scenes stand out as amongst the greatest committed to celluloid this year. In the first, a group dances to and then sings Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ (1979). As hips grind together and sweat drips down the wallpaper it becomes more and more absorbing, meditative and beautiful. Just as you get your breath back, McQueen assaults you with something completely different on the same dancefloor, the room now filled with men dancing to a faster tempo. There is no dialogue, just music and movement, showing McQueen’s ability to paint complex social dynamics without a word. The catharsis of dancing, in a sanctuary away from the white men making monkey noises just outside, is punctuated with raised closed fists, ripped-off shirts and an out-of-body ecstasy.

Steve McQueen, Alex Wheatle from the series ‘Small Axe’, 2020, production still. Courtesy: BBC/McQueen Limited

Alex Wheatle, is a coming-of-age story based on the early life of the eponymous bestselling YA novelist. The film is non-linear, moving between his childhood of Dickensian cruelty in an abusive care system run by vindictive women of God to his move to London and discovery of his Black identity and, finally, to his time being nutured by a Rastafarian cellmate whilst incarcerated. Sheyi Cole’s performance is gentle and restrained, portraying Wheatle as a haunted man untethered from a sense of self. McQueen’s camera expresses deep wells of introspection by slowly zooming in on his face, perfectly still in silent thought. Alex Wheatle feels like a synthesis of the other four films, combining the police brutality and criminal injustice of Mangrove, the systemic abuse of Black children in Education, the codeswitching and musical ecstasy of Lovers Rock and the complex paternal relationship of Red, White and Blue. McQueen builds on all these themes, layering in other elements, for instance still images of and poetry, narrated in a grim baritone, about the 1981 Brixton riots.

The final film to air on the BBC, Education tells the story most personal to McQueen whilst being the furthest departure from his signature style. The artist has spoken publicly about his struggles in school: as a Black, working-class, dyslexic student he was repeatedly told he was only fit for manual labour; it wasn’t until he enrolled in Saturday school set up by Black educators, that his creative genius was nurtured. Whilst Education does not specifically tell McQueen’s story, the parallels with its protagonist Kingsley are evident. (Even the character’s name seems like a sly wink.) Kingsley is a bright, boisterous 12-year-old who dreams of becoming an astronaut. However, his ambitions are crushed when he is deemed ‘educationally sub normal’ and sent to a ‘special’ school. His hardworking, overstretched parents are too exhausted and defensive to appreciate how disgracefully the school system is treating their son. Despite the heavy subject matter, this film has plenty of moments of levity – including the most darkly hilarious rendition House of the Rising Sun (1964) ever to appear on screen. Unlike the other films, Education doesn’t feel like a period drama but, rather, a film made in 1971 that has been dug out of a vault. The images are lit bright and scrubbed matte, with an easy naturalism and slow pace that seems more Ken Loach than typical McQueen.

Steve McQueen, John Boyega as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue from the series ‘Small Axe’, 2020, production still. Courtesy: BBC/McQueen Limited

From microcosm to macrocosm, from his choice of protagonists to the way each shot and scene is constructed, McQueen excels at picking out perspectives or lingering on images that would normally be forgotten. In spite of his encroaching status as a bona fide National Treasure, he retains the perspective of an interloper, trapped in a world that misunderstands him.  

'Small Axe' was screened on BBC One and iPlayer 15 Nov – 13 December 2020.

Main image: Steve McQueen, Mangrove from the series ‘Small Axe’, 2020, production still. Courtesy: BBC/McQueen Limited

Leila Latif is a writer and a film critic based in London, UK.