Deep cuts: ‘Small Axe’

By Craig Mathieson

Black solidarity is a palpable force throughout Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology

Still from Mangrove. Image © BBC

An anthology of five feature films by the British director Steve McQueen, Small Axe is not so much an attempt to correct the history of London’s West Indian immigrants as it is the creation of a new narrative where officially one barely existed. “We mustn’t be victims, but rather protagonists of our own stories,” Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Black Panther star Letitia Wright) declares in the first instalment, Mangrove, and that rallying cry echoes through these incisive movies. Defiant in its collective anger, held tight by the bonds of black community, these interwoven stories equally address systemic failings and personal struggles. From moment to moment, they are works of intimate examination, but collectively they have a titanic weight.

McQueen’s quintet will be available to stream via Binge and Foxtel On Demand on successive days: Mangrove on December 19, Lovers Rock on December 20, Red, White and Blue on December 21, Alex Wheatle on December 22 and Education on December 23 (Foxtel’s BBC First channel will also air them in 2021). If that suggests a coordinated salvo, then their impact is suitably cohesive. Individual Small Axe titles were previewed at northern hemisphere film festivals over the past few months, befitting McQueen’s status as the director of Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, the Best Picture winner at the 2013 Academy Awards, but it’s when they are viewed in close proximity that the movies truly resonate. The detailed courtroom struggle of Mangrove, which is wracked with fury, only finds a suitable salve with the rhapsodic house party of Lovers Rock; bitter years and a beautiful night intertwine.

Small Axe takes its title from an African proverb that was popularised by a 1973 Bob Marley song of the same name: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” The anthology is an act of resistance, cutting down Britain’s monocultural modern history. Characters – whether fictional or based on real people – have to contend with a system trying to lock them out and deny their identity. After a series of harassing raids on the titular café in Mangrove, one of the first black community spaces in 1968 Notting Hill, the proprietor, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), asks a racist police constable, Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), what he actually objects to. “The problem is your menu,” the bobby replies, an answer both ludicrous and telling. Not even a spicy goat curry can be allowed to provide succour to the Caribbean migrants.

Alex Wheatle, which traces the formative years of the now acclaimed author through state care and imprisonment, has recurring images of him, whether as a schoolboy (Asad-Shareef Muhammad) or a young man (Sheyi Cole), being snatched without cause by the police, then straitjacketed or handcuffed and left on the floor. Education charts how black students who had any behavioural or learning issues, such as fictional 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), were swiftly classified as “sub-normal children” and shunted aside to special schools that were little more than holding pens. It’s only when their parents are mobilised that the boys and girls get the assistance they need, and the solidarity of family, friends and fellow travellers is a palpable force throughout the films. McQueen focuses on kitchen rituals and shared meals, the tonic of camaraderie and everyday pleasures, all burnished with authentic patois and period music. Even in Mangrove, where spurious police charges reach trial in the Old Bailey, there are no white saviours in legal robes diverting the narrative. At its bedrock, this is an immersive expression of black life.

As well as directing, McQueen co-wrote all five features, and his own experiences and observations as a child who was born and raised in West London with Trinidadian and Grenadian heritage suffuse the stories. The breadth of the commission – McQueen chose to work with the BBC so that Small Axe would air for free to the widest audience possible on British television – also consolidates the techniques he’s developed through his years as a Turner Prize-winning visual artist and filmmaker. The exacting tableaus of Hunger and the evaluative tracking shots of his most recent feature, the subversive crime thriller Widows, are deployed here, but they’re contrasted with exemplary handheld camerawork by Shabier Kirchner that feels intoxicating and spontaneous. Lovers Rock is the peak of this, a masterful 68-minute-long invocation of a dusk-till-dawn house party where the mood created by the sound system, whether full of languorous desire or later ecstatic fury, is transporting.

Lovers Rock also allows for worrying incidents outside the house where it’s set, and McQueen shows how the best and worst of episodes can sit in close proximity. With several dozen leading characters, there’s no definitive experience – anger can be righteous, but also inchoate or even self-destructive. The complexity that entangles the lives of second-generation immigrants looms throughout the biographical Red, White and Blue, where Leroy Logan (John Boyega, a Star Wars lead) gives up his career as a research scientist to join the London Metropolitan Police in 1983. His self-belief is tinged with arrogance, and Leroy is at odds with his father, Ken (Steve Toussaint), who has been assaulted by police and is pursuing official acknowledgement. As Leroy is worn down by the relentless institutional racism, McQueen keeps the focus on him – a shot of Leroy looking at himself in full uniform carries the weight of an entire community’s judgement.

Small Axe can’t help but dip into didactic shorthand at points, particularly in Mangrove, but these works are too vibrant and involved to merely be prescriptive. Throughout them, McQueen captures the sweep of diverse lives through piercing incidents and idiosyncratic detail. All five films set a strong standard, with several already included, rightfully, in lists of the year’s best features, but together they’re a comprehensive achievement. Few first drafts of history are this compelling.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


Still from Mangrove. Image © BBC

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